The Criterion Collection
Before we get to what a dazzling and loopy piece of craftsmanship “Punch-Drunk Love” is, a word — several of them — about a problem we don’t think Paul Thomas Anderson’s fourth feature has. If you were to strip the film down to pure plot, it might not sound like your typical Lonely Nice Guy movie. Adam Sandler plays a sensitive, shy single who’s coaxed out of his shell by a woman (Emily Watson) who loves him. This plot is always #problematic — a hashtag we don’t use sarcastically — the one where a female character exists solely to aid a sad, dateless male. There's enough of them in cinema, and in real life. Were it made today, Sandler’s Barry Egan would be the guy who goes on social media to rant about how girls don’t really want to date nice guys, obliviously betraying that he only pretends to be nice to get laid. Because an actual nice guy wouldn’t think that.
But again, we don’t think “Punch-Drunk Love” is telling this tale. That’s not only because it’s too too absurd, too unrealistic, too weird to be taken literally. It’s because the real tale it’s telling is about bottomless male rage and neuroses, not about how the only cure to that is a good, hazily motivated woman. About half of Anderson’s movies are diverse ensemble affairs (“Boogie Nights,” “Magnolia,” and we’d argue “Inherent Vice,” too). The other four are about solitary characters. And they are all about men: “Hard Eight,” “There Will Be Blood,” “The Master” and “Punch-Drunk Love.” These aren’t the kinds of men’s films that would please an MRA droog. They offer fascinating, valuable, bracing insights into what a troubling and scary place a man’s mind can be.
“Punch-Drunk Love” might be the scariest. It’s scarier even than “There Will Be Blood,” a movie without a single prominent female character, which offers a Dantean descent into a world of business where swinging dick masculinity runs wild, untamed by feminine influence. (Even “The Master,” in which a Cro-Magnon horndog and an L. Ron Hubbard type form their own private boys’ club, has Amy Adams scheming in the wings.) But Daniel Day Lewis’ Daniel Plainview mostly keeps his inner sociopath tightly concealed. And Joaquin Phoenix’s ex-GI may have an actual wang for a brain, but he’s never as volcanic, and never as out-of-nowhere about it, as Sandler’s Barry.
If “Punch-Drunk Love” fits anywhere in the Adam Sandler Cinematic Universe, it’s as an extreme outlier, hanging on by a skin flap. But unlike the performer/brand’s other, more serious ventures outside his clubhouse (“Spanglish,” “Reign Over Me”), it superficially allows him to do what he always does: He plays a man-child who occasionally boils over with comedic super-rage. Anderson somehow coaxed Sandler (and, 15 years on, it really does seem like “coaxed” is the word) to play an exaggerated version of his already exaggerated shtick.
When Barry is contained, he’s not a bro with a dumb smile; he’s painfully, wincingly awkward. He moves like he’s trying to mimic normal human behavior, and his attempts at communication toggle between semi-coherent mumbling and malapropisms. (“How’s business?” “It’s very food.”) But he has a trigger, and if he’s pushed too far — usually by his relentlessly mocking gaggle of sisters, or even by questions of his masculinity — he doesn’t just bust a vein. He’s apocalyptic, destructive, prone to break windows and restaurant bathrooms, even issue death threats. (And yet even the latter is pretty funny. This is an Adam Sandler movie, after all.)