Punch-Drunk Love  (2002) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

P.T. Anderson is an ambitious young filmmaker who is intent on making the films he wants to make, speaking in his unique voice.

In this case, he didn't just make a movie "starring" Adam Sandler. He made a movie "inspired by" Adam Sandler. If you've ever thought about Sandler in the past, although I don't know why you would, you had to wonder what type of person would maintain the exterior that defines his comic persona. Why does he talk in that infantile voice and act like an imbecile when he is not? Perhaps because that sweet little boy act is the way he masks his rage. Well, at least that's the way PTA sees it, so in this movie he gives us Sandler's usual comic schmuck that everyone takes advantage of, but he also shows us what created that guy, what he does when other people aren't looking, and what he would do if you pushed him too hard.

The circumstances that created him are found in a childhood with seven sisters who have treated him like a fool since he was born. When he was tiny, they would gang up on him and call him "gay-boy" or something, until one day he erupted in a rage and threw a hammer through a glass window. The sisters don't really know it, but that hammer-throwing urge still lives on in their brother now that he has grown. His life is basically full of throwing hammers through windows, or comparable acts, except that he does it out of sight. What does he do in public? Well, then he acts like the usual mealy-mouthed Adam Sandler character. Unfortunately, keeping up the wimp facade gives him no release valve for his anger, so the pressure inside of him just keeps building until he explodes, either in uncontrolled sobbing or uncontrolled rage.

Of course, his sisters are at least vaguely aware of his unusual nature, so when they continue to treat him like an imbecile, the pressure builds even more. When they tell others about his quirks, he feels betrayed, and he becomes enraged. One night, on a dinner date, he finds out that the sisters have told his potential love interest about his quirks, so he quietly excuses himself from a restaurant table, and adjourns to the bathroom, which he treats in much the same manner Kid Rock treats his room at the Ramada. He responds to all acts of betrayal or effrontery in much the same way.

Adam Sandler is a comic by trade, and much of comedy is a socially acceptable outlet for rage. Sandler, given a chance to act out this dramatic extension of his comic rage, grabs the ball and runs with it.

During the course of the film, we see him in three or four plot threads of unequal importance, which are (sometimes loosely) connected.

  • He has found a loophole in a frequent flyer program which enables him to get a million free air miles by buying three thousand dollars worth of pudding.
  • He makes a call to a phone sex line, and becomes the victim of their ever-escalating scam to bilk him of money.
  • Somebody drops a "harmonium" off in front of his place. This is, we presume, caused by some agent of fate akin to the Greek gods.
  • A woman falls in love with him, and he doesn't want to mess it up.

Although the love story is the most important of the plot threads, it is handled the least skillfully. His lover, played by Emily Watson, is given no character to develop. She is ... um ... pretty nice, and she has a good job which requires a lot of travel, and ... um ... he has a British accent ... and ... and ....



Let's face it, she isn't a real character. She's just there to provide someone for Sandler to fall in love with. We don't know why she loves him, and we can't really conceive that it is possible, given what we know about him. But it seems to be her destiny. She just showed up one day at his place of business, already so much in love with him that she used a lame pretext to get him to notice her. Again, it is a story out of Bulfinch, as if the ancient gods had simply placed her in his life already in love with him, as per some agreement between Zeus and Athena.

Indeed, the phone sex scam also seems designed to test his worthiness, as if mighty Zeus had wagered that baby-voice comedian Adam Sandler could not stand up for himself against swindlers, and compassionate Aphrodite had taken the bet based upon the schmuck's interior steel which only she could sense.

So do you want to see this movie? Maybe. Perhaps you want to see Greek Mythology come to life and modernized. You have to have reasonable expectations. Nothing in this film really derives from real life, and events do not necessarily follow logically from one another. People don't react as they should when they see they things they see. It is all myth. If you are willing to suspend your need for credibility and accept that mythologizing, the film can be exhilarating. If you like coherence, you'll find this film frustrating, because PTA is absolutely determined to stay on his own eccentric train of thought.

Director PTA is impressive, but is no less frustrating than writer PTA. His visual composition is breathtaking, he is a genius at storyboarding, and he packs a lot of strange details into the background. Sometimes, if you watch what is going on out of focus behind the actors, you will find something more interesting than the main focus. Sometimes the background music is maddening - so ugly, so discordant, and drowning out the dialogue. PTA does that on purpose, of course. He is allowing us to experience the character's agitated state of mind by recreating that state in our own heads. Clever? Yes. Brilliant. It's highly involving, but also potentially irritating. Film connoisseurs seemed to like the film, but it isn't likely to please the Joe Six-pack movie crowd.

I had mixed feelings about it. I just don't know how much room to give PTA with his crazy inventions. I know a lot of people who love movies who thought that many elements of Magnolia were bullshit. Because Magnolia was such a deep emotional experience for me, I was willing to let Anderson have his way with the sing-along and the rain of frogs. Those things do sound dumb on paper, I agree, but in the context of the movie, I simply didn't react to those events by thinking they were ludicrous. I just accepted them as they came, and let them become part of the movie's world. As I was watching Punch-Drunk Love, I wasn't really forgiving PTA's contrivances they way I did in Magnolia. I was more likely to think, "this is dumb".

As time goes on, I think we will be viewing this movie as an interesting, quirky film outside of the main body of the director's work, much as we view Boxcar Bertha in the context of Scorcese's career, or Of Human Bondage as a Bill Murray film.

no DVD available. still in theaters

I don't love Punch-Drunk Love, but I celebrate the fact that it is a unique film. In a world full of formula thrillers and predictable romances, PTA is determined to create original, personal, somewhat dotty films. He's a lucky man, because his reputation allows him to do that, and that's why most people get into filmmaking in the first place.

The Critics Vote

The People Vote ...

  • IMDB summary. IMDb voters score it 8.1/10 (#245 of all time), but Yahoo users score it only 2.9/5
  • with their dollars: made for a $25 million dollars, it grossed $10 million in its first four weeks, and doesn't look like it will break even.


IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, C+. The direction is highly skillful, and the film is prized by critics and fans of the offbeat and the arty, but it is a "love it or hate it" kind of movie.

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