(review written October, 2002.)
"Punch-Drunk Love" is the most bizarre film I've seen all year. Yet, like the hero, the film seems anixous, disorganized and even hot-tempered until that one moment where everything clicks, and it rights itself wonderfully. The film is directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, who discussed in interviews his desire to make a 90-minute romantic comedy after the lengthy - but remarkable - dramas "Boogie Nights" and "Magnolia". The director stunned fans further when he announced the casting of both Adam Sandler and Emily Watson, who seemed about as comfortable a pair on-paper as oil and water.
The film stars Sandler as Barry Egan, a guy who makes a decent living selling customized toilet plungers out of a warehouse near Los Angeles. Barry also has no less than seven sisters, all of which make his life a living hell. Ever since childhood, he's had to put up with their constant taunts and criticisms. One of the sisters tries to set him up with her British friend Lena (Emily Watson) and although he seems disinterested, she persues him and eventually, the two start something of a relationship.
But, unfortunately for Barry, there are still issues that need to be dealt with - most noticably, his emotional problems. Barry is socially awkward to the extreme, not to mention prone to incredible outbursts of anger and even the occasional crying spell. The other issue would be the phone sex company in Provo, Utah trying to exort money from Barry. Both problems combined lead Barry to believe that a getaway is in order and he takes off for Hawaii, seeking Lena, who's there for a business trip. To try and get the airline miles, he takes advantage of a Healthy Choice promotion that gives 500 miles for every ten products purchased. As one might expect, trying to get to Hawaii involves a whole lot of pudding.
Many have called this Adam Sandler's best performance and I suppose it is, although Anderson has simply opened out the range of the usual Sandler characters. The darker moments of rage are more pure and unpleasant instead of silly and the lighter, dimmer side of the character seems - well, more dim. For some reason, I felt as if this character seemed like the off-screen version of one of Sandler's other characters, like Happy Gilmore, if they were real people. Watson's equally impressive here; although the reasons why she's falling for Barry seem awfully thin, she still manages to make the romance work unexpectedly well.
The film starts off rather irritating, as Jon Brion's percussion-heavy score seems to be nervously working away, doing its own thing on the soundtrack. The film's opening also seems a little too quirky for its own good. There's a nervous, caffinated energy at work that doesn't exactly work to draw one further in. You can't quite get a read on whether to be sympathetic to Barry or be terrified by him. Then Watson enters the picture and everything clicks and calms; Brion's score changes gears, the film has settled down enough to appreciate Robert Elswit's brilliant cinematography and enjoy Anderson's strong direction. Anderson also continues to use sound well, although there's still a few too many silence-to-chaos moments.
This is the point where I'll compare "Punch-Drunk" to other Anderson films and that's not a particularly easy task. "Punch-Drunk" is focused, offers fine performances and is technically impressive. However, parts of the plot are a little thin and it's just not quite as ambitious or memorable as Anderson's other three films. Those seeking out another Sandler picture along the lines of Sandler's usual films will likely be disapointed, but there will hopefully be some of those people who go in with an open mind at least trying to experience something different. And, quite honestly, even those who aren't looking for a Sandler film or dislike Sandler going in might strongly dislike this picture; it's an off-beat picture that not everyone will find something to like in. Still, I recommend it - it starts off rather unpromisingly, putting us into the chaos of the character's mind, but then it turns into an unusual and sincere love story that I thought worked well.
VIDEO: "Punch-Drunk Love" is presented by Columbia/Tristar in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. The presentation is tiny bit rough at times, but the picture quality generally does a superb job of capturing the look of the film that I remember seeing theatrically. Sharpness and detail are generally good, although there are moments when the film appears slightly softer.
The presentation shows only a few scattered, minor concerns. Edge enhancement is briefly present in a couple of scenes, but only slightly. No compression artifacts were seen. The print remained in excellent shape, but there are some instances of mild grain in a few scenes, which is an element of the photography.
Colors are bright and rich throughout, appearing very well-saturated and vivid, with no concerns. Black level remained solid, while flesh tones looked natural. With unexpected and intesting camera movement and inspired compositions (I'm fascinated with the visual style that results when director Anderson and cinematographer Robert Elswit combine forces), "Punch-Drunk" is a film that definitely should only be viewed in its original aspect ratio, as it's presented here. English/French subtitles are offered.
SOUND: "Punch-Drunk Love" is presented by Columbia/Tristar in Dolby Digital 5.1-EX and DTS 5.1. As one might expect, this is certainly a dialogue-driven feature, but there are moments of fairly involving surround use. Jon Brion's score is the main occupant of the rear speakers, but there's the occasional sound effect offered by the surrounds, as well. Audio quality is quite good, as Brion's score comes through sounding crisp and rather dynamic, while dialogue is crisp and natural-sounding. Although nothing too aggressive, Anderson's sound designers have added enough layers and subtle touches to nicely expand the sound experience beyond what this kind of film would usually present. English/French 2.0 tracks are also offered.
EXTRAS: The few extras are included on a separate disc, allowing the film to have the first disc to itself (in order to try and optimize presentation quality). The first extra is "Blossoms & Blood", a 12-minute montage of clips with various tunes from the soundtrack playing in the background. In other words, a lengthy (but well-edited) music video. The presentation is also in 5.1, with the music sounding terrific, filling the room quite beautifully.
Also included are 11 scopitones (brief clips of some of the art seen in the picture), 2 deleted scenes, more art, the "Mattress Man" ad with the Phillip Seymour Hoffman character and three theatrical trailers for "Punch-Drunk Love".
Final Thoughts: Experimental and often quite odd, "Punch-Drunk Love" may not be for everyone. Still, director Paul Thomas Anderson has come up with an enjoyable reinvention of the usual Sandler persona and an interesting, quite unpredictable take on the romantic comedy genre. Columbia/Tristar's DVD release offers very good audio/video quality, along with a few minor supplements. Recommended for fans of the movie, all others who are interested should rent first.