Barry: I'm looking at your face and I just want to smash it. I just want to ****ing smash it with a sledgehammer and squeeze it. You're so pretty.
Lena: I want to chew your face, and I want to scoop out your eyes and I want to eat them. Chew on them and suck on them.
Barry: Okay. This is funny. This is nice.
Last fall, when I would attempt to defend - or sell - my admiration for writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson's latest feature Punch-Drunk Love, I decided to use the above exchange as a litmus test of sorts. A typical "what the...?" reaction is certainly in order, but there are two distinctly different "what the...?" reactions to be had: for one, there is the arched eyebrow, smirking one, amused and curious; the other is exasperated and confused, perhaps even indignant. If your reaction is the former, and you can intuitively sense the head-over-heels romance inherent in the exchange, then Punch-Drunk Love will likely prove a beguiling, possibly even giddy experience; if your reaction is the latter, then it will likely fall flat on its charming, bruised face. In any event, the film itself is that rarest of birds - one in which detractors and admirers may find themselves similarly confounded. Thoroughly unique, Punch-Drunk Love is a sugar rush of a film, albeit one suffused with enough melancholy and desperation to afford it real gravity.
Punch-Drunk Love is told from the vantage point of Barry Egan (Adam Sandler), a lonely, scared man given to fits of undefined rage. First seen at his place of work - a small novelty company that he owns which sells, among other things, customized plungers - he is pinned against the wall in a corner (Anderson pushes him to the edge of his frame). As he sips his morning coffee, his worldview is rapidly defined - the outside is bright and threatening, somehow too stark and vivid. Something inexplicably draws him up the alley and to the street as he gazes out of his shop door and onto a wall of an adjacent building (his view is very limited indeed). All hell breaks loose, immediately and without warning, as if all of his fears are instantly confirmed - a car suddenly flips and crashes; a checkered cab minivan pulls up and deposits a harmonium on the road. Barry, terrified, flees back to his office.
Peering outside his garage once again, Barry encounters kewpie-doll Lena (Emily Watson) - another venture outside, another unforeseen consequence. She asks him to hold onto her car key so he can give it to the mechanics next door when they open. After awkward conversation (with Barry muttering "I don't know" like a mantra), he remains stationary, gazing; Lena, with the camera prowling behind her, walks up the alley toward the thoroughfare. Ever more paranoid, Barry is again compelled to walk up to the street - after being startled by a moving truck (a few of those show up), he inexplicably grabs the harmonium and returns it to his office.
His office, however, is no sanctuary. There too, he must interact with the outside world, whether in the form of his employees or his sisters (he has seven of them), who plague him with demeaning, abusive telephone calls. His sister Elizabeth (Mary Lynn Rajskub) actually stops by, peppering him with questions regarding a family party being held later that evening. She, as his other sisters already have, demands that he show up, and also inquires as to whether or not she should bring a woman she knows for Barry's benefit. He declines the date but attends the party, and we are given a glimpse as to the reasons for his current state - his sisters mercilessly taunt him, and he responds with a fit of window-smashing rage. Later that evening, he pulls aside a brother-in-law for advice and help (he's a doctor - well, sort of). Sandler plays this particular scene beautifully, with a careful restraint - it's a great, heartbreaking moment.
Barry, still desperate for contact - any human contact - unwisely decides to call a phone sex line. After being hustled for private information, the outside world again conspires against him: he is contacted the following morning by the woman he spoke with and an extortion scheme is leveled against him at the behest of the "Mattress Man" Dean (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a two-bit furniture store owner who runs the phone sex ring. Confronted again by Lena the same morning, Barry's world is in a state of rapid, frenetic flux - he agrees to a date with Lena, while Dean dispatches four brothers (actual brothers in real life as well) to strong arm Barry into forking over money.
As the narrative unfolds, Barry's world contrasts and expands, wondrously suggested by Anderson's sure-handed direction and his use of artist Jeremy Blake's contributions. Whether the interludes of flowing, undulating artwork represent moments of clarity or the rhythm of things beyond his control - or, frankly, whatever the viewer deems them to be - Barry's journey of self-discovery picks up an uneasy, undeniable momentum. To its distinct credit, Punch-Drunk Love does not concern itself with convention or the objective: among its oddities is a stranger-than-fiction subplot concerning a Healthy Choice promotion and free airline miles. Throughout its whip-fast and heady duration, Anderson's ability to surprise and confound never falters.
As a writer, Anderson veers from the wildly ambitious (see Magnolia and Boogie Nights) to the extremely focused (Hard Eight and Punch-Drunk Love). Although Boogie Nights and Magnolia both possess moments of pure brilliance, I tend to prefer Anderson's less sprawling pictures - whereas the larger ones aim to envelop and then overwhelm, his more modest ones better demonstrate his keen storytelling abilities (and I happen to like all of his features thus far). Punch-Drunk Love, though certainly a "modest" PTA enterprise, is also a novel creation by the young auteur: it is thoroughly, absolutely controlled, and yet it somehow breathes. Interestingly, as his shortest feature (it clocks in at just under ninety minutes), I think a very strong case can be made for Punch-Drunk Love being Anderson's finest work, his most assured and challenging. That it appears so very slight at a cursory glance - and rewards so greatly with subsequent viewing - is a further testament to that notion.
Video: Presented in anamorphic widescreen with an aspect ratio of 2.35:1, Punch-Drunk Love simply looks great. Anderson and cinematographer Robert Elswit deliberately utilize a high contrast level in many of the outdoor scenes (as well as flares), so don't be alarmed. Barry's garish blue suit pops from the screen, as does Lena's often brightly based outfits and Jeremy Blake's color saturated creations. Black levels are rich and deep (there is a beautiful sequence in which Barry and Lena are silhouetted, one of my favorites from last year), and I witnessed no significant instances of anything (such as persistent edge enhancement or undue grain) that distracted from the transfer. Very nicely done and completely in keeping with what was projected on the big screen, which is not surprising since the transfer was reportedly supervised by Anderson.
Audio: Punch-Drunk Love is presented in DTS-ES, DD 5.1-EX, and English and French DD 2.0 stereo. The DTS track is fantastic - although Punch-Drunk Love utilizes a modest sound design, it is intense and jarring when Anderson wants it. The surround features, when used, are nicely balanced, and the overall mix is excellent. Bass tones are solid and not overbearing (again, with the brief exceptions of when Anderson designs them to be), and the higher registers are clear and true. Jon Brion's score, which ranges from discordant to syncopated to waltz-like in its beauty, is very well rendered. Since aural comment is as important as the visual components and compositions of Punch-Drunk Love, it is indeed a pleasure that the audio presentation is so well done.
Extras: A limited amount of moderately entertaining (and appropriately eclectic) extras are to be found on the second disc, as follows:
"Blossoms and Blood" (12:02): Essentially a short film interspersed with Blake's colorful artwork, Blossoms and Blood essentially crystallizes elements of the narrative from Punch-Drunk Love and includes footage from the film shot from different angles. It also includes some brief additional footage and dialogue that I suspect was omitted from Anderson's final edit. Lastly, Blossoms is interesting in that it acts as a reconsideration of sorts of Punch-Drunk Love, as it reassembles (sort of) the narrative and psychological thrust of the feature.
12 Scopitones: These are the art pieces by Jeremy Blake included in the film, ranging from about 15 seconds to over a minute (although most are on the smaller side.) An interesting addition, with each working like a miniature tone poem, although I doubt I'll partake in them with each viewing of the film.
3 Theatrical Trailers: Theatrical trailer (2:33), which is essentially a straightforward treatment; Jeremy Blake's Love (1:24), which begins with his "scopitones" and ends with brief footage from the film; and, lastly, Eat Tomorrow (:34), a brief trailer intended for a French language audience.
"Mattress Man Commercial": A curious addition (:53) featuring Philip Seymour Hoffman in character as "Mattress Man" Dean. Walking on the roof of his store with a guitar, he takes what can only be described as a rather hairy fall to the ground after jumping upon five or so mattresses stacked atop a car. I suspect this was unscripted - and, unless Hoffman has taken stunt training that I am unaware of (or if the bit is a fake, which is most likely), it also looks pretty painful.
Two Deleted Scenes: Included is the Sisters Call (7:18), which features extended dialogue and footage, and call do they ever. Barry is continually harassed by inane conversations, and the piece also includes Sandler continuing his violence / affection routine as he foul-mouths a cute kid in the distance. I'm glad this was not included in Anderson's final cut. Also on board is Are You From California? (2:42), a brief scene that includes additional dialogue from Barry's first encounter with the brothers at the cash machine. Again, I prefer the cut used in the film.
Artwork by Jeremy Blake: This is another brief feature (2:42) which highlights Blake's artworks in rapid succession, accompanied by Annie Kerr's rendition of "I've Gone Native Now," which sounds as though it is being played from an old Victrola.
* All extra features come complete with optional Korean (!) subtitles.
** Paul Thomas Anderson's instructions: Taken verbatim from the 12-page, artwork-laden insert:
"Notes for Enjoyment":
"Get Barry's suit blue, blue, blue. Don't be shy. Get Barry's shirt white. Don't be afraid to let it bloom a bit. Turn up the contrast! Make sure your blacks are black and listen to Loud!"
"For Something Different":
"On the bonus material disc, move up to Punch-Drunk Love. Sit back, relax and enjoy all supplemental features in random order. The computer has final cut each time, so enjoy its guidance... Total running time is 34 minutes."
Final Thoughts: The ideal way to view Punch-Drunk Love is from a vantage point of complete and utter surrender. This is actually easier to do than one might imagine, as the first viewing is utterly surprising (and likely to defy expectation) and almost abstract. On the big screen it was exhilarating and strange, filled with color, vibrancy, and disorienting turns. Subsequent viewings (whether on film or video) allow the full detail and design of Anderson's creation to come forth - the music, the noise, the moods, and the swirling, heady effects. If you have ever felt trapped, repressed, fearful, confused and desperate, Punch-Drunk Love - aided in great measure by Sandler's deft performance - will bestow rewards as it painfully and compassionately evokes self-actualization, true communication, and ultimately, the uncertain, intoxicating promise of romantic love.
The two-disc, Special Edition Superbit release of Punch-Drunk Love will also make it easy to want to enjoy repeated viewings, as the video and audio are each given an excellent treatment. The extras, as noted above, are about as strange and eclectic as the film itself. However, this release would have benefited from some additional resources. In the final analysis this is a minor complaint, as the feature itself on a single disc - unencumbered by extras - is greatly appreciated; however, as a two-disc release, DVD Talk Collector status would have been afforded if a bit more were issued in terms of extras. However, as it is, Punch-Drunk Love is highly, highly recommended, although it may alienate Anderson and Sandler fans in equal measure.