What if you were allowed to witness a Technicolor Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers trip the light fantastic inside a black-and-white prison for perverts? Or, at the least, were gifted with the emotional equivalent?
Surrounded by concrete walls and artificial light, a man in a bright blue suit at a desk disputes with a Healthy Choice Products representative over discrepancies in the company’s frequent flyer promotion. He gets frustrated and decides to continue the conversation later, taking the man’s number. He walks through a warehouse to open its huge industrial door and watch the sunrise, but instead witnesses the flash of a car flipping, and a Checker Cab dropping off a harmonium in the street. He shakes for a moment, examines the organ, then goes back to his phone calls.
Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson seems like he’s more afraid not to travel into the unexplored than to sit comfortably inside the standard. That may be the only characteristic connection to his father Ernie Anderson (Cleveland’s popular ’60s horror show host Ghoulardi, and later the promotional voice of ABC). After the younger Anderson’s successes with Boogie Nights and Magnolia, it’s hard to pinpoint where his interests lie — anywhere from porn to cancer to frogs — and Punch Drunk Love is no less potent than his last. It’s a visual song of vulnerability, with a rhythm vaulting from discord to harmony and back again in vibrating organic-colored tones, as if the whole film were breathing on its own.
At work, Barry (Adam Sandler) is displaying dice-decorated plungers to potential customers when he’s paged by his sister. “Hey, it’s me. Are you going to that goddamn party tonight?” After he’s finished with her, another sister calls to hassle him. Barry has seven sisters — who could pass for the Ramonettes — all crass, abrasive and abusive. When it comes to him, they hold nothing sacred — they know just where his sensitive spots lie, where to sink their “familiarity breeds family” claws. Barry is the poster child for hopeless cases. He’s been beaten down for years and moves like a shadow against his environment. But when their time has come, the wonderful will not be thwarted, not by phone porn, fits of primal rage or pudding.
Intrigued by a Time magazine article about David Phillips, a civil engineer who accrued more than a million frequent flyer miles by buying $3,000 worth of Healthy Choice pudding, Anderson met the man and built a character around him with Adam Sandler in mind. He contrasts Barry with Lena, a part written with Emily Watson in mind, who’s drawn to Barry with a hungry, crazy, wide-eyed fascination, like she’s walking into a pitch-black room knowing a heart-astonishing secret lies somewhere inside.
The film feeds on contrast. Anderson drenches the screen with contrary combinations — like harsh, blinding, desert light silhouetting the figures in the foreground, interspersed with intense swashes of fuchsias and aquas as abstract rainbows of relief from Barry’s ominous everyday life. Jarring film cuts, coupled with the violent and unexpected, merge with ukulele serenades, ocean waves and all the successful ingredients for a starry-eyed romantic potion that wins Lena, and all of us, over.
If you ever had any doubt about the depth of Sandler’s talent, his portrayal of Barry is proof that he can tap into sensitive realms beyond comedy — and he does it more than well, holding his own next to Watson’s well-respected abilities. Between the two of them, and Anderson’s eye, ear and touch, every aspect of the film is saturated with emotion and momentum — like when Barry first meets Lena outside his workplace. As she walks away, the camera follows her and then cuts to Barry, but the sound stays with her footsteps — it’s like stretching an audio-visual rubber band that we know has to snap back.
Whatever Anderson’s internal formula is, it’ll swallow you up into amniotic submission while it rages all around you. Punch Drunk Love is invulnerable proof that just because everyone thinks you’re a weird mess doesn’t mean you can’t have a gooey and twisted bubble-gum ballad follow you around like a loyal love-bound destiny.
Anita Schmaltz writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].