An improbable comedy with an improbable cast directed by an improbable auteur, Punch-Drunk Love hits a poignant filmic note. Much briefer than Paul Thomas Anderson’s other high-profile films (clocking in at a mere 89 minutes), Punch-Drunk Love moved both the director and its star, Adam Sandler, in new cinematic directions.
Sandler brings his trademark passive-aggressive anxiety to his role as Barry Egan, a small-business owner and only son in a family of eight. The film begins without any exposition, but we at once sense the unease and loneliness Barry feels, both at work and at home. Suddenly a harmonium and a woman named Lena Leonard (played ever so gracefully by Emily Watson) enter his life and change it forever.
A refreshing twist on the romantic comedy, Punch-Drunk Love focuses on its protagonist overcoming his own problems rather than relying on external plot conflict. The film can largely be summed up as the journey from Barry asking his brother-in-law, “I don't like myself sometimes. Can you help me?” to his declaration to Philip Seymour Hoffman (in a terrific cameo), “I have a love in my life. It makes me stronger than anything you can imagine.”
Memorable for the bold, striking colors and lighting that fill Punch-Drunk Love’s frames, and complemented by the late artist Jeremy Blake’s swirling, tie-dye like visual interludes, Anderson’s film is a true bounty of moving pictures. Punch-Drunk Love is quirky and short, but it’s a complete package worth exploring more than once.
—Darryl A. Armstrong