By Jack Ryan, For The Miami Student
In many recent romance films, love seems to be formulaic. You have the same shallow characters, the familiar settings, with the possibility of a slight twist near the end, but nothing that isn't overcome easily. You can be 10, 15 minutes into a picture and know exactly where it's heading, creating this viral cycle of what 'love is supposed to be.'
Paul Thomas Anderson's 2002 Palme D'or winner "Punch-Drunk Love" is nothing like this. It defies pre-set ideas of the rom-com and does what was once considered impossible; it is a good, serious Adam Sandler film.
"Punch-Drunk Love" follows Barry Egan (a wonderfully dramatic Adam Sandler), a hyper-internalized novelty salesman who is prone to spasms of uncontrollable rage as his only form of catharsis. Barry is clearly very lonely. His only acquaintances seem to be his friendly co-worker Lance (Luis Gusmán) and his seven sisters who have subjected him to a life filled with verbal and emotional torment. His longing for companionship becomes so desperate that he makes a call to a phone sex line and foolishly reveals all of his personal info, just to talk to someone. He needs something else in his life.
That something else is Lena (Emily Watson), the self-confessed antithesis of Barry. She is unusually honest where he blatantly lies, her red dresses contrast beautifully with his bright blue suit and she embodies each frame with this warm, caring presence. She makes such an impact, that you can feel her in scenes that she is not physically present, as a red passerby in the background or as a visual symphony of color. Sometimes, it even seems like she is just off-screen, but in Sandler's line of vision, calming him down or amping up his feelings of desire.
Speaking of Sandler, his performance as Barry is equal parts heart wrenching and hilariously uncomfortable. He spends much of his time on screen mentally or physically pushed in a corner, and when he occupies the full frame, he is either frantically bouncing around with nervous tics and stutters, or subtly simmering with emotion. Sandler is in full control of a man who has no handle on his existence and finds a way to make this clear.
While "Punch-Drunk Love" is certainly an unconventional romance, it still agrees with some traditions of rom-com. In the film's first moments, Anderson shows that he agrees with the idea of 'love at first sight,' but it isn't expressed through the slow motion double take we've seen so many times before. In "Punch-Drunk Love," Barry witnessing an unsettling car accident is almost immediately juxtaposed with him meeting Lena for the first time, giving their first impression a jarring undertone. Although their encounter is brief, nothing is the same.
As Barry and Lena collide throughout this ridiculous plot line, color and sound become clear focal points. Jon Brion's score is a brilliant blend of ambience, harmonium and pure noise that exaggerates the constant barrage on Barry's psyche and emphasizes the calming effect Lena has on him. Robert Elswit uses many long takes to give Barry mobility, while still giving the impression that he is claustrophobically ricocheting around. Due to Elswit's masterful and unorthodox use of shadow and light, this film can occasionally be visually confusing to some, but for most it will be aesthetically gorgeous throughout.
One shouldn't be deterred because this is considered "the art house Adam Sandler movie," but rather should be aware that it is radically different than any other Sandler flick (or generic romance) in almost every sense. Where other romance films would fall back on the successfully set tropes and stereotypes of the past, this movie embraces its originality. It's weird, because love itself is weird. Beautifully, hopelessly, intoxicatingly weird.
However you end up spending your Valentine's Day weekend, alone or with others, remember that "Punch-Drunk Love" is available through the wonderful convenience that is Netflix.