A regular series where we discuss some of our favourite ever comedy films.
Paul Thomas Anderson is considered by many to be an unconventional director, indeed only his early films like Hard Eight and Boogie Nights are movies which have storylines that go from A to C in a fairly standard manner, whereas his most recent works are character studies with a fascinating selection of ideas and themes explored within their running times. But it could be argued that Punch Drunk is the real oddity out of all of his work, as it’s a rather sweet tale, a mostly upbeat, very funny but by no means mainstream comedy, despite the presence of Adam Sandler.
Anderson has claimed that the film is a largely autobiographical one, with the director saying in 2003 in an interview in The Guardian “You have to be a brat in order to carve out your parameters, and you have to be a monster to anyone who gets in your way. But sometimes it’s difficult to know when that’s necessary and when you’re just being a baby, throwing your rattle from the cage. So I can be a real arrogant, bratty prick at times. But maybe not so much now,” he says. “Really.” Which perhaps explains why his central character is ultimately portrayed in a sympathetic manner, but the real revelation is just how funny Anderson could be whilst examining the issues that he had, it’s a style of humour that I miss from his later work.
I have to confess that Adam Sandler’s always annoyed me a little, I’ve found his humour a little too wacky, with too much unsophisticated slapstick and reliance on weak puns and over the top gross out humour. There’s been a few exceptions – The Wedding Singer, 50 First Dates, Funny People, The Ridiculous 6 (okay, okay, I’m joking when it comes to that last one I swear), but this was the first time that he’d really acted, really stretched himself, and finally proven that he does deserve to headline a film. He’s still doing his trademark angry young man character, but in Punch-Drunk Love it’s a role with hidden depths, and one which explores why he is so filled with anger. In many ways it’s a shame he didn’t make more serious films rather than reverting to lazy crowd pleasing shite which actually stopped pleasing audiences a long time ago.
The film opens with an unusual scene, where Sandler is on the phone in a deserted warehouse that he partially uses as his office, and it’s shot with a shaky handheld camera. It feels cold and stark, and what seems to be on a very low budget, with no soundtrack. It’s a marked contrast to the usual slickness of Anderson’s work, but audiences shouldn’t be unsettled by this because as Sandler’s character opens himself up to the outside world the film reflects this and becomes increasingly beautiful. Whilst a little plotless at first the storyline soon unfolds as Sandler finds himself feeling particularly lonely one night, and so calls a phone sex line. Unfortunately the morning after he finds himself being blackmailed by one of the phone sex girls, and despite cutting up his credit card his troubles don’t come to an end. At the same time he meets Lena, the co-worker of one of his seven over controlling sisters, and begins to haphazardly date her.
Unsurprisingly Anderson also gets outstanding performances out of the rest of the cast too. Emily Watson clearly enjoyed playing a mostly normal lead role as the romantic love interest, and it was about time someone cast her in this sort of part as she excels at it. Meanwhile Phillip Seymour Hoffman is as fantastic as always, and to those who suggest he all too often played similar characters – that of the shy, sleazy and lonely creep – should catch his performance here. When he and Sandler face off against each other at the end of the film the tension is almost unbearable, but it leads to a pleasantly surprising climax.
Bar the stark opening, and a few other scenes, the cinematography is sublimely captivating, with an alluring use of colour, to the extent that one particular scene made me gasp. The soundtrack, as with all of Anderson’s films, is carefully used to maximise the effect of certain scenes, even though much of it would be quite horrible to listen to on its own. Okay there are a couple of questions the film poses but fails to answer, including what exactly Watson sees in Sandler initially – but it’s a tiny negative point, and overall this is a seductively bizarre, unpredictable, very funny, and ultimately joyous film.
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