Written and Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson
I recently sat down to rewatch Punch Drunk Love for the second time. I credit it as one of the works that helped nurse my newfound passion for film. It tells a story that is entertainingly quirky, but that also sufficiently ambiguous to challenge audiences to use their imaginations. It also takes a textbook example of a mainstream comedian, Adam Sandler, and brings out his acting talents, featuring him as Barry Egan, a man who is soft-spoken and anxious and also struggling with an anger management problem. This time around I enjoyed the film as much as I did when I first viewed it. Nonetheless, I was struck by how different it seemed.
When I first saw Punch Drunk Love, I saw myself as engaging in a challenging element of my cinematic growth. I was watching a story that made no sense: it had something to do with a harmonium, something to do with a blue suit, and something to do with a shady furniture store. Egan made no sense either: his job felt like a fiction, his intentions fluid and his desires opaque. I was fascinated by Egan and rooted for him, still, he was no rational actor.
Two-and-a-half-years, and numerous indie films with understated plots later, watching Punch Drunk Love proved a fundamentally different experience for me. Egan remained idiosyncratic, yet not unintelligibly so. He randomly came across a harmonium, so he tried to learn to play it: that makes sense, especially given his seeming lack of other passions in life. He bought a lot of pudding to get coupons: it seems like a risky interpretation of a sales deal, but everyone needs a hobby. In short, in my second viewing, I saw Barry not as some artistically, provocative fictional enigma, but a man looking for meaning while struggling with some combination of loneliness, anxiety, depression and anger management issues.
Of course, it is quite common to notice things on a second viewing one didn’t see the first time around. It also makes sense that plot details such as Barry’s behaviour can seem less weird when one knows to expect them. When it comes to viewing Punch Drunk Love, however, this experience was particularly striking. Barry has seven sisters who are controlling, cold, and judgemental towards him. The first time I watched Punch Drunk Love in a way, I was those sisters. The second time around I was not: I may not have been Barry, but I understood his motives enough to be baffled and disappointed by his sisters’ behaviour towards him.
I do not know what your experience watching this film will be like. What I can promise is that it is a simple story that is too dark to be called “low-stakes,” but too absurd to be called “high-stakes.” If this kind of plotting, and a successful usage Adam Sandler’s talents in a (relatively speaking) serious role (Community fans will also appreciate getting to see Greendale alumni Luis Guzman feature as his friend, Lance) appeal to you, you too may come to count this oddball love story amongst your favorites.