Unchained Melody

'Punch-Drunk Love' strains to put romance and rage in harmony

Paul Thomas Anderson has a habit of pushing his story lines five to 50 steps beyond what's good for him--or the viewer. The "Sister Christian" sequence in Boogie Nights sang a brilliant operetta of lonely megalomania-- never mind the finale of boring bullets. Magnolia may have made some kind of sense to someone were it not for the frogs. Is Anderson showing off? Is his excess a sign of hubris? Or does he lack an "off" switch? Whichever, he's at it again. And unfortunately, the worst indulgence of his latest, Punch-Drunk Love, is the casting of its star, Adam Sandler.

It must've seemed an ingenious marketing ploy: Entice the millions who buoyed Mr. Deeds to cough up for an arty romance. Certainly Sandler won't alienate any fans with this characterization: As Barry Egan, he offers the same old idiot savant--just a touch more self-consciously miserable. "I don't like myself sometimes," Barry confesses to a dentist (who's a doctor, see?). "I sometimes cry a lot for no reason." Suddenly he clutches hands to face and keens. Laughter is not inappropriate.

Waterboy tries scream therapy: Adam Sandler in 'Punch-Drunk Love'
Columbia Pictures
Waterboy tries scream therapy: Adam Sandler in 'Punch-Drunk Love'

Barry is the owner of a business that seems designed to sell stuff others couldn't sell. He has seven sisters who torment him with constant, invasive talk. He has no girlfriend--or friend, for that matter. One morning Barry witnesses a red SUV smash into the street near his warehouse. Then somebody deposits a harmonium on the sidewalk in front of him. (These things happen in P.T. Anderson movies.) He takes it back to his office, coaxes a note from it. Later that morning, a woman asks if she can leave her car keys with him for an auto shop next door. The harmonium and the woman have the same effect on Barry: They make a melody of the noise of life.

There's a lot of noise. Of Anderson's fancy tricks here, his best is forcing the viewer--I should say audience--to feel the sounds we take for granted. At points, so many conflicting clangs, crashes, and conversations vie to be heard that I, too, craved the solace of a single musical note. When Barry doesn't have a harmonium around, he kicks plate glass windows (cascading jingle) and demolishes bathrooms (metal banging). That's where Barry and I differ. Barry also lies a lot. He freaks out when his ever-so-cruel sisters joke that he's gay. He shuffles and ducks in that fake-awkward Sandler fashion and smiles that fake-shy Sandler smile.

I don't get what the car woman sees in him. Because it turns out that she, Lena (Emily Watson), took the car to that auto shop so she could meet Barry. She had seen a picture of Barry with his sisters. That's all it took. And meeting Barry convinces her to: 1) ask him out; 2) suffer genially through a dinner date in which Barry mauls the bathroom; 3) tell Barry to kiss her; and 4) invite him to Hawaii with her. Why? The soundtrack answers: "He needs me." Watson gives her all, but Lena is a blank: a perfumed breeze, a bag someone forces air into so he can play a certain musical note.

And that note is often silence. A romantic comedy, which this film claims to be, is often talky. Barry and Lena hardly speak to each other. Perhaps Anderson took it on as a challenge: the silent romantic talky. (Anderson to Sandler: "Can you grow a soul?") Barry speaks when he's away from Lena, of course, so a character arc emerges--for him. And--guess what?--that arc has to do with learning to speak up for himself, with confronting the daily noise and making himself heard. In theory, it's a nice idea: Teach the dumb Sandler persona--which is so much the dumb American male persona--to articulate. But in practice, you get a lot of Barry screaming, "Fuck you, you're killing me! I'm going to kill you!" to people who are likewise screaming, "Fuck you!"

These exchanges arise particularly within a ridiculous subplot concerning phone sex: Anderson at his most tritely excessive. I expect Philip Seymour Hoffman needed some wallpaper to chew on. And the writer-director needed to further characterize male passivity as "gay" and male assertion as "hetero." And Barry needed more adversity to triumph over because a romance where you don't feel empathy for the protagonist is no romance. Except I still don't care about him.

Perhaps Punch-Drunk Love is no romantic comedy. Perhaps the story is meant to be allegorical. Barry always wears a blue suit and a white shirt; Lena always wears red. (The flag?) After much violence, Barry faces down an enemy by declaring the strength of his love (for country?). Anderson begins with a crash, and ends with music-making. (Harmony?) America, America/God (that is, P.T.) shed his grace on thee... Except I still wasn't moved by this movie.

 
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