For as long as I’ve been a consumer of media, I’ve been a spectator of love. Not really having a personal ledger to go by, I’ve adopted a rather laissez-faire attitude towards romantic plots. Anything that purports to authentically disclose this unfamiliar terrain of the human experience is something I’m not just receptive to, but actively seek out.
That said, I am generally allergic to romantic comedies, drawn instead to the melancholic, cynical or outright devastating. (I devoured Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking” and “Blue Nights” each in a day and routinely subject myself to Wong Kar-wai marathons.)
There are of course a few notable exceptions to my rom-com aversion: “Sex and the City,” “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” I’m not a complete masochist! Another is Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2002 film “Punch-Drunk Love,” which is an Adam Sandler flick and so much more. To me, it’s the platonic ideal of a rom-com and a large part of why I think PTA is possibly the best American filmmaker of the 21st century.
The PTA sensibility is, if the cultural response to “Licorice Pizza” is any barometer, becoming increasingly hard for people to decode. This is rather unfortunate, and it seems to me to indicate a rapid decline in the quality of critical observations that proliferate online. Indelible to “getting PTA” is understanding sociality as irreconcilably messy, fragmented and layered. “Punch-Drunk Love” — a film stripped of references and ethical or material pleasures — is the ideal primer to his work.
“Punch-Drunk Love” was my PTA gateway drug. I watched it in the thick of lockdown my junior year of highschool, before I knew anything about film or really much about people. I’m still not sure I know much about people, but everyday I become less convinced that anyone else does either.
Barry Egan (Sandler), completely adorable in his starchy blue suit, exists at the fringes of sociability and relationships. He too is a spectator of love. Barry’s sisters are knitted together by a bond that excludes him and is also built on disparaging him. His loneliness and social ignorance are startlingly palpable in a party scene that occurs early in the film where Barry walks in with an extra birthday cake and immediately has to contend with uncurbed taunting from the gang of sisters.
When he smashes through three separate sliding glass doors later in the evening, the action feels almost justified, because so far PTA has been so precise in his delineation of the unpleasantness, even darkness, that undercuts so many aspects of the everyday. This mundane darkness is often latent, but it’s still there. It’s there in the background car crash that Barry observes; it’s there in the warehouse he works in. We’re led to believe it’s something that has been a constant in his entire development.
It’s not difficult to see how these occurrences and ones like it can be disorienting, especially to someone like Barry who is left to reconcile them completely alone. While social bonds are not immune from this same eerie inscrutability, finding the right person or people to weather them with is what makes life bearable. PTA sources hope in the form of Lena (Emily Watson), who becomes this person for Barry.
Lena’s presence transfixes Barry as much as it does the camera. From the point of her introduction to the screen, the movie gets dreamlike. A grayscale palette turns warm and prismatic. A soundtrack punctuated by gaps of silence, white noise and the caustic sounds of logistics are overtaken by Shelley Duvall’s rendition of “He Needs Me” from “Popeye.”
The “He Needs Me” sequence, when Barry is trying to track down Lena in Hawaii, is completely perfect in my eyes. It’s one of those rare moments in film that are so sublimely beautiful you kind of want to cry and then remember that you’re still watching an Adam Sandler comedy and in the next scene Philip Seymour Hoffman is going to be a silly little villain and that it’s simply not that deep.
Realizing this is sobering, stymying the “punch-drunk” part of “Punch-Drunk Love.” Similarly, I’ve observed people fixate on the unlikelihood of Lena’s attraction to Barry, or the ways in which their relationship likely isn’t built to last. These have never been detractors for me.
I think what I find so affecting about “Punch-Drunk Love” is tied somehow to the ways the pieces don’t all quite fit together. It’s taught me the beauty and utility of relationships like Lena and Barry’s, even if they are imperfect or impermanent. In a world where people are fundamentally unknowable to each other so much of the time, even transient moments of social clarity are invaluable and worth dropping everything for.