Punch-Drunk Love (2002, Paul Thomas Anderson)

There are probably better movies with seven-minute end credits than Punch-Drunk Love but I doubt there are any where those seven-minute end credits are padded to give the film a more respectable run time. Punch-Drunk Love is an approximately eighty-eight-minute marathon where writer and director Anderson hones in on his protagonist, played by Adam Sandler, and relates the chaos of his life.

Sandler’s a plumbing supply manufacturer in business with Luis Guzmán, his only friend. As close as Sandler has to a friend. Guzmán’s performance is profoundly, beautifully dry. He doesn’t have much to do, but when he gets something, he nails it. Guzmán is also the human side of Sandler. The film opens with Sandler alone at a desk in a corner—he has an office in the rest of the movie; it’s unclear why he’s using that phone—calling to confirm he’s read the fine print correctly on a Healthy Choice and American Airlines promotional deal; you get a five hundred mile credit for every ten items, but you can double it with a coupon, and there are no limits.

After that phone call, Sandler wanders out into his industrial park, looking at the early morning sky, and witnesses a bewildering car accident. Soon after, he meets a lady dropping off her car for a nearby mechanic; Emily Watson plays the lady. She’s the love interest. Sandler will change his entire life for Watson as the film progresses, conquering known and unknown fears.

The character definitely has OCD as well as some kind of anxiety disorder. He’s got seven sisters who call him at work to pester and berate him. They tell stories about how they bullied him to outbursts as a kid, joking about it as adults, all of them entirely indifferent to the turmoil it causes Sandler. Even when he acts out because of the teasing. All the sisters but one are only in the film’s first act. Mary Lynn Rajskub sticks around to antagonize Sander throughout.

So it’s never clear how the lifelong bullying has affected Sandler’s social behaviors, but the family’s not just indifferent to the effect of the teasing; they also don’t acknowledge the OCD. Sandler wants therapy but knows his sisters would mock him for seeking it, so it seems like he’s never been to see anyone for the OCD either. The party scene with the sisters is emotionally exhausting, both for the film and Sandler.

Home alone with no one to talk to–having been shut down by a brother-in-law Sandler mistakenly thought would be sympathetic—Sandler calls a phone sex line. Anderson shoots the scene continuous—lots of Punch-Drunk is long, complicated, moving scenes, sometimes with a single shot, often with multiple shots; great editing makes it seems like a single shot when it’s a dozen–and it’s exceptionally discomforting. Especially listening to the operator manipulate Sandler.

The next day, the operator calls back, demanding money. Sandler told her he had his own business, and she took it to mean he was wealthy; the phone sex operation is part of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s mattress and furniture sales store (important details later on), and Hoffman doesn’t take kindly to someone not wanting to be shook down.

Once Sandler starts getting the extortion calls, Punch-Drunk accelerates for the rest of the film. Jon Brion’s music initially ramps it up, seemingly the constant, relentless soundtrack in Sandler’s head. The music does slow down, but it’s set the pace, and Sandler soon finds reaching out for human connection is full of pitfalls. Particularly when his sisters, even off-screen, continue to mess with him.

But then there’s Watson, a calm amid all the chaos, even as it rages around her, even as she surprises Sandler. The plot with Hoffman and the extortion is tough, mean, absurd black comedy, and the romance with Watson, happening simultaneously, is a Technicolor romance. Albeit not in Technicolor. Sandler’s aloof but meticulous performance holds the two plots together, his intensity shared between them.

Also, obviously, Anderson doing a bunch of work to keep things synced, with lots of help from composer Brion, cinematographer Robert Elswit, and editor Leslie Jones. Punch-Drunk Love is fastidious to the extremis. So it stands out when they use some transition animation to get the third act done. It’s a jarring, wanting device, but Anderson manages to make up for it almost immediately. It’s probably the film’s most impressive accomplishment; to build off of literally nothing, rebounding from what ought to be a debilitating low. It’s exceptional.

And it’s not even over. As Sandler finally gets to the last stretch of his sprint, the last few minutes just get better and better, with a postscript lifting it even more.

Punch-Drunk Love is a singular success. Sandler grows his performance to greatness, and Watson’s a true enigma. The film marvels at her performance as it unfolds. Anderson directs the heck of it.

So incredibly, so unimaginably good.

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