Punch-Drunk Love

If there’s one thing that Paul Thomas Anderson loves, it’s virtuouso camerawork.

In his first film, Boogie Nights,

it was generally considered to be a nod of the head to Martin Scorcese. But

the impossibly long tracking shots have remained through Magnolia

to his latest film, Punch-Drunk

Love. When the director starts showing off his camera-slinging abilities

in a romantic comedy, of all things, you know he’s got it bad.

Punch-Drunk Love is no ordinary romantic comedy, however, even if

you put to one side the question of the amount of time that the director evidently

spent setting up shots of the interior of a 99-cent store. (Anderson’s influences

seem to have extended past fellow filmmakers to include Andreas

Gursky.) For one thing, the girl’s completely in love with the boy from

the beginning. For another, it is certainly uncommon for the standard romantic

comedy to start with a car suddenly flipping up into the air and tumbling down

the road – especially when said car accident is never referred to for

the rest of the film. It’s a magical-realist touch, a bit like the frogs in

Magnolia, which sets the emotional tone for the rest of the movie:

edgy, with a hint of forces beyond our control.

Adam Sandler stars as Barry Egan, a man who grew up with no fewer than seven

sisters, and who, as a result, is not entirely balanced. He’s the sort of person

who demands something verging on omniscience from customer support people, he

sometimes talks to himself, and he sometimes cries a lot for no reason. Oh,

and sometimes, if provoked, he can explode in a violent outburst. Again, not

exactly a traditional romantic lead, and in fact it’s far from clear why his

sister’s wide-eyed English colleague Lena Leonard (Emily Watson) is so in love

with him.

Sandler himself is perfect for the role, a vulnerabile and trusting naif who

has a lot of inner strength – strength which, more often than not, manifests

itself in counterproductive ways. There was Oscar talk before this film came

out, but he’s not going to win; in fact, I predict he won’t even get nominated.

He suffers from the same problem as Jim Carrey, who got nominated neither for

Man On The Moon nor for The Truman Show: the Academy doesn’t

take comic actors seriously, and certainly never gives them a Best Actor gong.

Another count against Sandler is that despite the film’s critical success,

audiences have hated it. The opening-night audience, when it was polled by CinemaScore,


the film an absolutely rotten D+ rating. To give you an idea how bad that is,

this is from CinemaScore’s FAQ: "Where it *IS* nearly perfect, is in the

negative. If a movie gets lower than a B+ (and a B+ is strictly marginal) from

opening night true believers, then the chance that ANYONE is going to like it

is vanishingly small."

What could these people have hated so? They weren’t ignorant hicks who wandered

into an Adam Sandler flick and got a nasty surprise: Punch-Drunk Love opened

only in very limited release, in the major movie centers (New York, LA), and

was sold out for all of its opening weekend. Maybe they wanted an earnest, overlong

and operatic film along the lines of Boogie Nights (152 minutes) or

Magnolia (188 minutes). Punch-Drunk Love is only 89 minutes

long, and says nothing about the human condition.

I doubt they objected too much to the visuals, although maybe the Adam Sandler

fans in the audience did. The film is gorgeous, shot in super-wide 2.35:1 anamorphic

Panavision, and Anderson makes full use of it. Egan gets onto a plane? We get

something straight out of Stanley Kubrick, with our blue-suited hero striding

directly towards the camera, in front of an undifferentiated mass of grey-suited

clones, and then turning to walk down the pure-white route to the aircraft,

slowly dissolving into the light at the end of the tunnel until his silhouette

looks like something from Close Encounters. It’s fantastic, as well as being

a friendly I-can-do-better-than-that response to the opening sequence of Jackie


The scene which made it onto the film’s poster

is even better. The foreground is dark, with out-of-focus hotel guests milling

back and forth; the background, of people enjoying themselves on the beach,

is in crystal-clear focus. And in between, silhouetted against the Hawaiian

sun, the girl finally gets the romantic kiss with her boy for which she has

been pining since the beginning of the movie.

And at various points in the movie, the screen goes completely abstract, and

is covered with amorphous coloured blobs and lines. It looks fantastic, but

it could definitely be considered weird by anybody expecting a conventional


Best of all is a long scene in the factory where Egan works. Already flustered

from a telephone call he received that morning, Egan is confronted by his sister

and his sister’s friend. He likes the friend, the friend likes him, but the

presence of his sister flusters Egan even more. Meanwhile, the phone calls keep

on coming. The camera starts off conventionally steady, tracking Egan as he

walks across the warehouse and trips over something on the floor; by the end

of the scene it’s hand-held, darting around frantically, in and out of focus,

with the music getting faster and more nervous. The writing is fantastic, to


What we’re seeing is Anderson coming into his own as a filmmaker, doing his

own thing as opposed to, say, Martin Scorcese’s. For this scene doesn’t impress

the audience in the way that Scorcese might. Instead of creating a feeling of

professionalism and seamlessness, the length of time without a cut serves to

ratchet up the tension. And because there’s no denoument, because the tension

isn’t dissipated by the narrative of the film, the scene works a bit like the

car crash at the beginning. It creates a none-too-pleasant feeling in the audience,

one which doesn’t fit well for people expecting a romantic comedy.

Maybe that explains the D+ rating. Punch-Drunk Love is a difficult

movie to pigeonhole, best described by what it’s not (conventional romantic

comedy, Adam Sandler star vehicle, PT Anderson extravaganza) than by what it

is. If you go with an open mind, I think you might well like it. But you almost

certainly won’t get what you expected.

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5 Responses to Punch-Drunk Love

  1. kane stewart says:

    this movie is not for everyone but in fact my guess is 99% of people hated this movie. Adam did a great job in this film and the cinematography was insane I love the randomness of the movie

  2. Stefan says:

    Are you insinuating that the comments on my blog are not intelligent?

  3. Stefan says:

    Erm, the above comment was appended to the wrong post. But I maintain this is due to the length of your posts so one has to go scroll-crazy to get to the end, and thus honest mistakes get made.

  4. Michelle says:

    I was impressed by the psychadelic colored patterns between scenes. Why does there need to be any boundaries in film making? He was told a story in an original way. In “A Woman Is A Woman” by Jean Luc Godard, the actors will stop what the are doing, the camera will pan across the scene, and the director write questions across the film – directly interacting with the characters. How funny is that? And why not?

    I don’t think there should be any boundaries to art or film. I loved Anderson’s beautiful interaction between scenes of high definition color with all the characters’ conversations pull down into mumbling so you can’t hear what they are saying… he’s fucking brilliant. It’s just another way experimenting with your medium.

    The other part of the film which was interesting is the way I was left at the edge of my seat for the entire time. The car crash in the first scene made me so tense that I never knew what could happen next… a romantic comedy mixed with an awareness that it could all dissapear in two shakes, as in life. Love can be fragile. And our hero does not take advantage of his leading lady… in fact, he does everything possible to protect this once in a life time opportunity. It’s very sweet story, in that sense.

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