A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 263 – Punch Drunk Love

Punch Drunk Love – November 18th, 2010

When I see the words “romantic comedy” I tend to cringe. Yes, there certainly are good ones, but there are more bad ones. What comes immediately to mind when I see the words “romantic comedy” is something like You’ve Got Mail, a movie that makes me so viscerally angry I can’t even flip by it on television without ranting about it. I really fucking hate that movie. Anyhow, the words do not bode well to me. And then when I see the name “Adam Sandler” something similar happens, except with flashbacks to his shrieking man-child antics on Saturday Night Live. Combine the two and I’m sure I would never in a million years have bought this movie. But I didn’t buy it. Andy did.

I feel like this movie very much wants to be The Big Lebowski, but instead of The Dude we get Adam Sandler. I like The Dude a hell of a lot better. This is sort of like if Walter and Donny were combined and made the hero of that movie instead of The Dude. And while I felt bad for Donny I really disliked Walter and needed him to shut the fuck up most of the time. So this is not a great combination for me. Worse when it’s actually Adam Sandler with the sudden fits of anger and wince-inducing awkwardness. I have some sympathy for social awkwardness. I spent a lot of my youth and teen years incredibly painfully awkward. But that doesn’t make it enjoyable to watch someone else repeatedly shove his foot in his mouth and then break a window or two out of frustration.

So, as one might suspect, this movie is largely about Adam Sandler’s character, Barry. Barry is a toilet plunger salesman who has seven sisters who nag him to death and tease him about things from their childhood. Barry is incredibly socially awkward and goes so far as to try to confidentially ask one of his brothers-in-law for help finding a psychiatrist because he has this problem where he cries randomly for no reason. Of course his harpy sisters find out and nag him about that too. I don’t like Barry, but no one deserves that and I don’t like any of his sisters either. Barry is prone to lashing out when the awkwardness snaps back like a taut rubber band. This is not something I find unexplainable, but it’s not much fun to witness. Anyhow, Barry calls a phone sex line out of desperate loneliness and ends up chatting about mundane crap while the operator tries to get him hot and mostly fails. She ends up trying to bilk him out of $750 and sics her brothers on him when he refuses. Meanwhile, Barry’s actually met a woman who likes him and whom he’s managed to talk to and kiss! So the rest of the movie is sort of a muddle of Barry and Lena (the woman) and their very quick romance and how it acts as a catalyst for Barry to finally be able to do something to fix his own life.

That’s great. Girl as catalyst. I simply adore it when the female lead is reduced to a single purpose: Giving her man strength. Really, that’s Lena’s whole purpose in this movie. As a character she’s woefully faint. We know she’s slightly awkward herself. She works with one of Barry’s sisters doing… something. It’s never made clear what. She was married at some point in the past, but that’s never elaborated upon. She likes to travel, but I don’t think that’s ever explained either. Mostly her defining characteristic is that she’s interested in Barry and willing and able to cope with and see past his awkwardness to something that makes her fall in love with him. Goodness knows what it is cause I don’t see it. And even if I had, his weird line about wanting to smash her face with a sledgehammer, delivered as an endearment while they’re in bed together, would kind of turn me off. What with it being so thoroughly squickful. Do I have to even try to explain how much that freaks me out and why?

When it comes to the plot, I can see what was intended. There’s a subplot with frequent flier miles and Healthy Choice pudding and a sales promotion, but it’s sort of a red herring meant to give Barry a quirk that serves as an impetus for him to act later on in the movie. The thing with the phone sex line and the four guys who come to harass Barry is another cue for Barry to take action. It spurs him to take off for Hawaii on short notice. It’s a threat against Lena later on, which leads to the ultimate showdown between Barry and the guys (one of the few satisfying moments of the movie for me) and Barry and the guy who runs the phone sex line (thoroughly unsatisfying). But really, those plots and the romance with Lena? They’re all for Barry. The sisters are background for him. The guys he works with are background for him. The pudding, the harmonium he finds in the street, the phone sex plot and the extortion that it leads to? It’s all to showcase the development of this one guy from awkward and occasionally violent to. Um. Still awkward and occasionally violent but with a purpose. Great.

I did not enjoy this movie. It made me tense during the violent bits and flinchingly uncomfortable during the awkward bits. The weirdness in between and Emily Watson’s Lena were really the movie’s only saving graces, and they’re not enough to make me like this movie. Though to be honest, I don’t think it’s just Adam Sandler’s presence. I think any actor playing this part, with the anger management issues and social awkwardness would do the same thing for me. It’s the part as written. It’s the plot as written. It’s that Lena’s the only character I like and she’s not much of a character. She’s a character development tool for the story of Barry, as shown by the bizarre but oddly fitting use of “He Needs Me” from Popeye. He has to defend his woman! Ultimately this is a character study. It’s just that I don’t particularly want to study this character. In fact, I’ll be glad to put this character and this whole movie behind me and pretend it doesn’t exist.

November 18, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Punch Drunk Love

November 18, 2010

Punch Drunk Love

I bought this movie because so many people had told me that it was not an Adam Sandler movie. I realize that in the history of cinema there have been an awful lot of movies that would not be considered Adam Sandler movies, and perhaps that is a strange yard-stick to use in my purchasing choices, but most of those movies do not, in point of fact, star Adam Sandler. So what do you get when you have a movie that stars Adam Sandler but isn’t an Adam Sandler movie? I have absolutely no idea. Add to the strangeness that it is a P. T. Anderson film and that’s bound to be special. Paul Thomas Anderson makes some strange films. Films about lives falling apart. Films that do not conform to any usual Hollywood convention. So I bought this movie sight unseen based on my love for Magnolia and the recommendations of friends and family.

Having now finally watched the film I am not sure where I sit with it. It was marketed as a romantic comedy – perhaps because that is the only way you could really market an Adam Sandler film at the time that this came out, and I can only imagine how strange it must have been for any fans of romantic comedy or Adam Sandler who went to see this in the theater. Maybe that is the joke. Maybe the entire film is Anderson’s way of snubbing his nose at the romantic comedy genre. Or maybe in his mind this really fits the mold of romantic comedy – even though it has little romance and practically no comedy.

There are movies that do an amazing job of capturing a particular emotion or feeling. Darren Aronofky’s Pi for example, so perfectly captures the intense pain of a migraine headache that it almost feels as though I have one when I’m watching it. This movie is that sort of movie. It is a movie, as I see it, about panic attacks. It captures that feeling of being enclosed by unwelcome and uncomfortable feelings and being completely unable to handle human contact. So good a job of this task does the film do that it is intensely uncomfortable to watch.

The movie centers on Barry, a man who has a lot of trouble talking to other people. Things happen to him which force him to come out of his shell and attempt to communicate in some way. Because it is a strange sort of romantic comedy some of the tings that happen to him are non-sensical and magical. Such as near the beginning of the film when he witnesses a horrific car accident (which is never explained and has nothing to do with the movie) and some people leave a harmonium in the street near the alley where his designer plunger business is based. Because this is a P.T. Anderson movie some of the things that happen are painful moments of private humiliation made even more painful when they are brought to the big screen. Such as when in his loneliness Barry calls what is probably the most terrifyingly corrupt phone sex line ever depicted.

As we watched this, and as Amanda became more and more enraged by the movie, she asked me if Barry was intended to be a sympathetic character. He’s the center of the film. The only real character in her mind. Are we supposed to like this man? I’m not certain. I felt sympathy for him. He clearly has problems. It goes far beyond simply being socially awkward and unable to talk to people. There’s a scene near the start of the movie where he goes to a birthday party for one of his sisters and it’s loud and full of people and he’s clearly uncomfortable being there. As the party progressed I really did have a lot of sympathy for this poor guy – I know well enough how difficult it can be to be part of such a scene. But then he has a moment of irrational panic induced violence – not so much a tantrum as an uncontrollable outburst. And he confesses to the husband of one of his sisters that he’s pretty sure he’s not normal and may need psychological help.

Barry as a character is badly broken. He’s unstable, unable to deal with people, prone to destructive outbursts that deeply embarrass him. He DOES need help, and is unlikely to get it since he has no friends he can confide in. So what kind of a hero is that for a movie, much less a “comedy?”

I spent most of this movie in a sense of panic. It’s not just that the entire film, from start to finish, is full of the kind of intense embarrassment that I wince to watch. It’s that the whole thing is constructed to bring the viewer into the uncomfortable confines of Barry’s head. Anderson employs a lot of intense camera work. The camera chases after Barry, runs ahead of him, is constantly pacing uncomfortably around him. Even when he is sitting still the camera is still in motion. There’s also the intense, grating, constant percussive soundtrack. As things go wrong for Barry, and continue to go wrong, the soundtrack builds a kind of tension. I watched this entire movie with my heart pounding and my faced flushed. No action film or monster movie I’ve seen before has involved such a prolonged adrenal fight-or-flight response.

I’d also like to take a moment to recognise some artistry that I don’t often specifically call out when reviewing a movie. The careful composition and impressive lighting in this movie are amazing. When Barry’s love interest Lena first shows up her face is entirely obscured by glare from the morning sun. There are lights bleeding into frame that add to the tension. As with the new Star Trek movie this is a film that uses flare and light refraction to make the movie more intense – while also making it more fantastic. One particular shot of Barry playing the abandoned harmonium to calm down involves a cool trick as the lighting in the scene subtly changes with his mood. There’s a sense of fantasy given to the picture by the way it is composed – like the iconic scene of Barry and Lena meeting in a hotel lobby in Hawaii where they are set in silhouette with rushing racing people dashing by all around them. So a special thanks to DP Robert Elswit and his team. Whatever else this movie may be it is a work of art.

Now back to my review. I know that another of Amanda’s complaints about the movie is that no effort is made to flesh out the other people in Barry’s life. It’s a movie centered on this one person and although he is surrounded by other people we don’t get much time to really understand any of them. I would argue, however, that this is part of the way the movie is told from Barry’s point of view. His inability to relate to people means that the people he deals with are not well understood by him and therefore by us. Indeed I think it’s impressive how much depth the rest of the cast are able to imbue their characters with given their limited screen time. Emily Watson is the most notable case of course. She manages with wounded looks and the intensity of her delivery to build and entire character from almost nothing. You get a sense of Lena’s desperate loneliness and her own inability to reach out. You see her battling to say difficult things. In a way it reminds me of Amanda Plummer’s mesmerising Lydia from The Fisher King, though she was played much more for laughs.

It’s also fun to see Anderson regulars Luis Guzman and Philip Seymore Hoffman. Guzman plays Barry’s perplexed but affable employee Lance, who turns out to be a pretty alright guy and seems like one of the only characters who cares if Barry is okay. Hoffman is the sleazy owner of the sex line that makes Barry’s life hell, and he looks like he’s having fun playing a loudmouthed bluster filled bastard. I was struck as well by Mary Lynn Rajksub and her performance as Elizabeth – one of Barry’s many sisters. Elizabeth is, in her own way, clearly as awkward as Barry himself, and even seems to care for him in her own obtrusive way.

So how do I feel about this movie? Well I’m not sure. It is an intense experience that is very well crafted to elicit a powerful emotional response. It is a character study of a deeply flawed person who, if he doesn’t get help, is as likely to end up a murderer as anything else. I don’t think I’m convinced by the end of the movie that things are really going to be okay for Barry. I didn’t feel there was much resolution or catharsis. This wasn’t a movie I instantly fell in love with like Magnolia. And it isn’t as big an emotional powerhouse as There Will Be Blood (though I can see a lot of similarities between the two movies.) This movie has a quirky and unreal feeling to it at times (with the Shelly Duval song from Popeye for example) but it steadfastly refuses to be pigeon-holed as fantasy, romance, comedy, drama, action… it is a P.T. Anderson movie. I respect it as an artistic accomplishment, but I don’t know if I have the stamina to watch it again. Not right away at any rate.

November 18, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment