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Punch-Drunk Love (2002)

by The Movie Diorama

Punch-Drunk Love chaotically delights with its offbeat obsession and unembellished romance. Barry, a blue-suited entrepreneur, precariously works in his spacious warehouse, selling a variety of novelty items for high mark-up. The walls accentuating his attire with additional cold shades of blue. The vast emptiness surrounding his miniature office space. The recently stacked-up cases of puddings, attached with an exploitative promotion to earn millions of frequent flyer miles.

One day, Barry wanders outside, sipping on his premium reflective flask. Suddenly, an inexplicable car crash emerges from the main road. With no time to process, a passing vehicle then drops off a dilapidated harmonium by his professional footwear. He acts. Running back to his warehouse grasping at the splintered edges of the “small piano”. Swiftly, a woman nervously approaches Barry, Lena, whom happens to be a co-worker to one of his seven intrusively emotionally abusing sisters. A tepid romance begins to blossom, where Barry soon confronts his social incapacities during his first chance for love.

Anderson’s romantic comedy is unlike any clichéd love story that saturates the accessible genre. First and foremost, it’s an authentic character study. Barry is plagued with severe social anxiety, a mental manifestation of years of emotional childhood abuse, when his siblings would unnecessarily call him “gay boy” and overbear him with personal questions. A side-effect of this is a profound loneliness that weighs on his optimistic shoulders. Anchoring him down, leading to the employment of brash coping mechanisms such as awkwardly phoning up chatline operators to initiate a conversation. His persona punctuated by uncontrollable fits of rage whenever anything agitates Barry to an extreme degree, from obliterating a restaurant bathroom to shattering his sister’s windows.

These psychological tendencies are sublimely meshed together through Anderson’s acute direction and sparse screenplay, enabling a hugely relatable character study to form. Emotional isolation is a tangible mental affliction, that more often than not, many viewers have experienced. To coincide that strong characterisation with a blossoming romance to which the other individual understands from a sentimental perspective, well, it instantly captivates. Why? Because it is relatable. They immediately fall in love, but it works effectively due to Barry’s inexperience with socialisation. He is unaware of the emerging feelings within, and struggles to cope with this newfound emotion. Therefore, instantly claiming “love” feels wholesomely convincing, in what is usually a superfluous claim for rapid plot progression.

Barry’s complexities and simplicities were expertly conveyed by a career-best performance in Sandler. Anderson intelligently touches upon his typical goofy comedic abilities, yet manages to nuance them with an empathetic undertone, to which Sandler sublimely emphasises through doe-eyed adornment. The bursts of rage, the tender romanticism and the entrepreneurial spirit all felt strengthened by his subtly visual performance. Watson was just as palpable portraying Lena, harnessing a complexity of her own as she shares a underdeveloped fixation with Barry.

Anderson however, remains as the shining star amongst all of his films. His direction, unsurprisingly, was faultless. Absolutely perfect. He somehow managed to merge the psychological character of Barry, with the romanticism of Lena and the noir thrills of the chatline extortion sub-plot. All eventually colliding with one another to challenge Barry’s recently discovered freedom from loneliness. He bravely stood up for himself, and his new love. Sweet, sweet perfection! Yet it’s Anderson’s orchestration of events that culminate in an absorbing drama. Elswit’s gorgeous cinematography that embedded vivid colourisation throughout to perpetuate character emotions, particularly blue (sad, loneliness) and red (love, anger). Brion’s initially chaotic score, matching that of Barry’s invaded mindset, slowly diminishing into jaunty romanticism when Barry courageously flies to Hawaii for Lena. Again, perfectly perpetuating the emotionality of its characters. Silhouettes, uncentered camera shots, lens flares, arduous long takes, Blake’s visually stunning video interludes, and so much more! It’s a smorgasbord of technical astuteness that, in itself, harks back to classic romance films of the 60s and 70s, whilst still embodying a contemporary aesthetic.

All constructed within the boundaries of a minuscule ninety minute runtime. An impressive achievement, that may have just lost its impact towards the inevitable rushed ending. Lena hospitalised, Barry confronting the chatline “supervisor” and then rampantly attempting to attain that “happily ever after” sequence, may have resulted in a more succinct impression had Anderson not insisted on such a restricted runtime. That overbearing criticism of the deservedly talented Hoffman waiting out on the sidelines does loom over.

Fortunately though, Punch-Drunk Love does not revolve around “The Mattress Man”. It strictly revolves around Barry. A regular human being, like you and I. Facing the plethora of emotional obstacles that life throws at his feet, much like the harmonium. Eventually, a shining beacon of light will enter the imprisoned mentality of loneliness. Allowing him to escape the overburdening anxiety through the power of love and affection. Isn’t that the greatest love story of them all?