Near the climax of Punch-Drunk Love, Barry Egan takes a trip. With seven sisters who apparently can’t stop calling him “Gay Boy,” it’s clear that Barry’s life is neither peaceful nor private, and a last minute trip to Hawaii is a welcome retreat. Barry’s everyday world is oppressively claustrophobic and, from the film’s first frame, it’s clear that director Paul Thomas Anderson has a profound affection for his plight. Anderson has admitted to wanting to make an “Arthouse Adam Sandler Movie” and, in this noble effort, he was successful. Anderson’s branding of his film suggests an affection that extends beyond the character to the actor who plays him. Punch-Drunk Love is many things – a comedy, a romance, a genre exercise – but it’s ultimately a fan letter from its director to its star.
In Happy Gilmore, Adam Sandler plays a hockey player turned golfer who attacks Bob Barker in response to a slight remark; in The Waterboy, Sandler plays a twenty-something momma’s boy with intense social anxiety who harnesses his long-repressed rage to become a star tackler. Neither of these characters are far removed from Barry Egan, who cries without reason and spontaneously shatters glass doors. Paul Thomas Anderson, however, examines the Sandler persona in extreme close-up – both literally and metaphorically – where the aforementioned films stop at an arm’s length. Anderson employs a surreal and bold style that often threatens to overtake the film completely with sudden bursts of sound and color. This overwhelming style serves as a mirror for Barry’s existence and the resulting sensory overload is effectively immersive. By immersing us into Barry’s psyche, Anderson gives the whole psychological package – sadness, confusion, anger – and it becomes harder to simply point and laugh.
Some of the most memorable moments in Punch-Drunk Love involve characters screaming at each other. Whether it’s Philip Seymour Hoffman’s hot-headed Dean Trumbell, one of Barry’s teasing sisters, or Barry himself, Anderson has a clear affection for watching his characters lose their shit. Unlike similar scenes in Happy Gilmore, where the payoff is purely comic, the meltdowns in Punch-Drunk Love often walk a fine line between comedy and tragedy. After Barry finally escapes to Hawaii – explicitly telling his coworker not to tell his sisters – he’s forced to call his sister Elizabeth upon realizing he doesn’t know where Lena is staying. This already precarious situation escalates rapidly when Elizabeth innocently questions Barry’s intentions. As if a lifetime of being called “Gay Boy” suddenly boils over, Barry loses it amid a crowd of people shouting “There’s no reason for you to treat me this way, just give me the fucking number…” This outburst elicits a response that lies somewhere between shock and comic release. On one hand, it’s empowering to hear Barry speak out against his oppression; on the other hand, when his tirade escalates to “I’ll fucking kill you,” the effect is startling. This scene could easily exist in the the universe of one of Sandler’s mainstream comedies but, in this film, we’re thrust into Barry’s point of view and sympathize deeply with his struggle.
Punch-Drunk Love takes a decidedly first-person approach to its story. The film opens with a super wide shot of Barry alone in his office. He’s wearing a bright blue suit that matches the rich blue of the walls behind him. During Barry’s phone call, there’s an odd ping offscreen and we wonder for a second whether we imagined it. But then Barry suspiciously looks up and proceeds to investigate it. This sound is never explained in any logical sense, it exists purely for the purposes of getting Barry’s (and our) attention. When he walks out to the street, there’s a pause as he looks up and down the empty street. The sound fades. The industrial neighborhood is shown in wide angles to highlight the negative space around him. Suddenly a car flips and barrel rolls past him. The sound, which had previously settled to near silence, suddenly bangs and screeches at an ear-piercing volume. This incident, like the ping from earlier, has no logical explanation, the plot quickly glosses over it. These surreal moments, however, have a profound psychological effect on our immersion into Barry’s mind – we feel appropriately anxious.
Anderson chooses to immerse his audience into Barry’s mind so that we sympathize with his bizarre behaviour. The man-child that Adam Sandler has made such a bankable persona is put under a microscope and the effect is an exposure to the darkness underneath. Punch-Drunk Love remains a romantic comedy, however, because of Anderson’s profound affection for this character. A romance on multiple levels, the infatuation Barry has for Lena is a clear reflection of Anderson’s affection for Sandler.