I'm shy. No, not just around girls, I mean I'm really and truly painfully shy. Some critics are fat. Some have bad facial hair. Others wear really tacky toupees and never seem to realize just how off kilter they are. Me I'm shy. Most people don't really understand what it means to be shy, to be timid, to be flat out Clark Kent mild mannered. But honestly, it isn't nearly as fun as the Man of Steel makes it seem. I've battled it my entire life, thrusting myself into terrifying social situations, torturing myself with human-to-human contact in a vain attempt to get something out of life rather than crawling in a hole somewhere to hide the way I really want to. Then there's rage; rage at myself for not being stronger, rage at others for not understanding. I'm not whining mind you, I'm just telling you how it is. Nobody is perfect and I have found a way in my own limited fashion to deal.
So what do you care? You're cool, outgoing, and wear leather jackets. Ladies swoon at your approach and your job at the gas station is both muscle building and rewarding, allowing you to keep fuel in your Harley and beer in the fridge. Well some of us want more. A few actually need more, even though it's of greater difficulty for them to get than it ever would be for you silly Fonzerelli types who don't know what you've got. A couple of us are even like Barry Egan.
Barry is the center of Punch Drunk Love, the latest film from acclaimed and occasionally ignored director Paul Thomas Anderson. Played by Adam Sandler, as indeed he could not possibly be by anyone else, Barry is a shy, timid guy with a lot of pent up rage. This isn't another Happy Gilmore. This isn't Adam Sandler walking around thwacking people with golf clubs for laughs, fun though that is. This is Oscar caliber… no scratch that, this is better than those get-it-wrong, out of touch old farts at Oscar have ever deserved.
Adam takes what he is good at… quiet timidity mixed with insane, mind bending rage and uses it to create a realistic, touching, and odd character the likes of which he's never played, nor have we ever seen. In a way Barry Egan is a lot like every other character you've seen him toy with, only pretend those characters were real. Pretend they were painfully shy. Picture them with seven nattering, embarrassing, abusive sisters. See them trapped in a life of loneliness, regret, and doubt. Picture Happy Gilmore mired in piles of missed opportunities and regrets but so painfully afraid of human contact, so full of rage and unable to express it that his life is nothing but a paralysis. All of that, held inside. But Barry can only hold it so long. Eventually, self-loathing and abuse push him to a breaking point and he explodes with rage so manic and so shockingly different from the meek Egan we know that he nearly loses himself in it.
Without the winds of chance, he might have been forever lost. He clings to hope in the form of pudding cups and a marketing ploy gone wrong. Maybe it's a way to make life better, so that he can go on even if he has to be alone. Then love falls, is shoved, is tripped into his life in the form of Lena. Lena is more than just some doe eyed perfect blonde. She's healing, she's acceptance. She's all the things he's never found and his only chance to throw away the rage and replace it all with love. How will he react? How will he cope when he is so desperately afraid? The depth of Sandler's performance is nearly painful. Yet he's still Sandler. Just Sandler if he were real instead of some cartoonish manic rich boy who smokes way too much dope.
As he did in Boogie Nights and Magnolia, Director P.T. Anderson shies away from formulaic filmmaking, despite dipping into what is the fairly formulaic genre of romantic comedy. Yet, imbued with the quirks and oddities welling up within Anderson's mind, Punch Drunk Love is every bit as romantic and heartwarming as any of the more cookie cutter films of romance genre. It's not too serious or intense. Nor is it overly complicated. Yet it hits themes that resonate, allowing it to cut straight to the heart. This makes it difficult to really equate Punch Drunk to Anderson's previous films. Both Boogie Nights and Magnolia achieve something special, yet their goals are so different they have an entirely different tone. Punch Drunk Love is a whole and complete story that succeeds as a film in a way I think neither of P.T.'s previous work, despite their small scale, scene-to-scene brilliance ever could have.
Though comparison between them is weak, Anderson, as he did in Magnolia masterfully uses both visual and aural medium to drive the emotions and performances of his characters. While some movies use score and sound effect to tell you how to feel, Anderson's beats merely mirror the feelings of his characters. Bases thump hard in anger and rage. Romantic classics fill the air in moments of love. Sound distorts as Barry attacks a hapless restroom. Colors swirl and heroes are born in a lavish land where site and sound are a visceral and living part of the emotion and characters in the film.
Contrasting quiet dignity with split second shock, Punch Drunk Love is not at all like any normal romantic comedy you've seen. Neither Barry, nor Emily Watson's Lena Leonard is perfect. Barry lies to save himself perceived embarrassment, going insane with rage when he can no longer cope. Lena, while on the surface a complete picture of almost unreal purity deals with past divorce and is herself desperately alone and in need. Love isn't at first sight, but a need to fill the gaping hole left by private loneliness is. Through risk and sacrifice comes confirmed love and romance with a more resounding note than any usual artificially contrived Hollywood smooch-fest.
Anderson, Sandler, Watson, and a memorable supporting cast including the underrated work of Luis Guzman, create a deep and warming film about how love can make even the weakest among us stronger than you could ever imagine. Punch Drunk doesn't play with being cute or sweet, not shying away from violence and touchy topics like phone sex. But it walks a fine line of visual and romantic charm to develop an imperfect and repressed character we can love. Like his other films, Punch-Drunk is an ode to the incredible healing power of love and the way chance and circumstance can affect our lives and those around us. Anderson creates exactly the kind of unconventional romantic comedy you might expect from him and Sandler turns in exactly the kind of unconventional performance no one would have ever thought he had in him.
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