A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

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 | , , ,

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