I'm a bit punch drunk myself after watching PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE (2002) the other day. It's an odd, weird film that I neither loved nor hated. It claims to be a "romantic comedy" but it's the kind of romantic comedy that you would find in the movie houses on Bizarro World.
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, the film has tons of visual style to spare thanks to some stunning cinematography by Robert Elswit. Many scenes are shot against stark, harshly lit white backgrounds which accentuate the isolation and broken mental state of Barry (Adam Sandler) a disturbed young man who owns a company that markets themed toilet plungers. He wears the same blue suit and red tie (a wardrobe borrowed from Clark Kent) throughout the film. Barry is given to sudden bursts of anger and while he's basically a nice guy, he's also a bubble or two off of plumb.
The story begins in a weirdly unpopulated section of Los Angeles. Early one morning, Barry witnesses a car accident outside of his warehouse office, followed by a taxi cab pulling up to the curb to allow an unseen passenger to deposit a broken portable stand up organ on the sidewalk. The car accident is never explained or referred to again. The organ, of course, will figure through out the course of the film.
Barry, lonely, frustrated and seeking professional help of some kind, turns to a phone sex outfit for release. He paces back and forth in his barely furnished apartment, talking on the phone to a woman with a sexy voice and dirty talk. Anderson keeps his camera moving constantly around the cramped space of the apartment during the conversation. More than once, he frames a scene so Barry is on the extreme right edge of the frame, then, Anderson will move the camera within the scene to place Barry at the extreme left side of the frame. These unsettling camera movements reflect Barry's off kilter mental state as he talks to the woman.
The next day, the phone sex woman calls Barry back trying to shake him down for money. He goes to work where he meets one of his sisters, Elizabeth (Mary Lynn Rajskub) and her friend, Lena (Emily Watson). The phone sex woman keeps calling while Barry, Lena and Elizabeth try to have a conversation. All of this is underscored by a discordant musical score by Jon Brion that's full of odd wheezes, grunts, sighs and thumps. The music sounds like it's coming from a broken down calliope operated by a monkey on crack. It's bizarre and off putting and it makes us feel as uncomfortable as Barry is while he juggles two escalating situations at once.
Lena and Barry finally connect in an stop and go manner while Barry is menaced by Dean Trumbell (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the man behind the phone sex operation that he runs out of the back of a mattress store in Utah.
Adam Sandler acquits himself well as a serious actor as Barry. His performance here is very good. Emily Watson is adorable as Lena but you have to wonder how broken this woman must be to find solace in someone like Barry. Maybe that's the point, that these two people, now matter how psychologically damaged they might be, find a kindred spirit in each other, someone who understands, who is willing to love them and through loving offer redemption and hope.
PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE is different, offbeat and not altogether successful. There are moments of humor and things end on a note of tentative happiness but you have to wonder about the long term chances of success at a relationship between these two characters. As I said, I didn't love it and I didn't hate it. It's admirable in its' audacity and I found it a compelling, interesting film that's worth seeing at least once.