Back in 2002 Paul Thomas Anderson surprised the world when he announced he was teaming up with Adam Sandler to make a simple, light-hearted comedy. Those two giants had been living in opposite corners of the cinematic realm for quite a while, so either Punck-Drunk Love was an accident waiting to happen, or it would become one of the nicest surprises of 2002. It turned out to be the latter and ten years down the road not much has changed.
Paul Thomas Anderson is a man of grand, sweeping, epic dramas. His films never dip below the 140 minute mark (happily ignoring Hard Eight for a minute, but that was his first ever feature), so seeing him do a 90 minute romantic comedy is a surprise in itself. But coupled with the lead role for Sandler (the king of simplistic, shlocky comedies), it quickly turned into one of the weirdest high-profile projects I've seen in the past 15 years. On paper both personalities seemed quite incompatible, but somehow they made 1 + 1 equal 3 here.
At surface level Punch-Drunk Love is a pretty typical romantic comedy. Sandler plays a socially handicapped entrepreneur (who grew up between his seven sisters), while Emily Watson is the somewhat uncomfortable love interest. There's clearly a spark when they meet up for the first time, but since they are both a little shy they have a hard time setting up a date. The fact that Emily is a colleague of one of Sandler's pushy sisters doesn't really help either.
But underneath that simple love affair lies a wealth of weirdness. Scenes, characters and moments that don't immediately add to the story or advance the romance, but greatly affect the mood of the film. At the very start of the film a van stops in front of Sandler's company and drops off a harmonium, right in the middle of the street. No real explanation as to why this happened is given, but it becomes a central element within the narrative. Punch-Drunk Love is full of scenes like that.
Colors and light are important in this film. There are several scenes where an abstract, living color palette (based on the art of Jeremy Blake) takes over for a minute or so, Anderson also goes to great length to color code the emotions of his characters through the use of mundane objects. And then there are the exaggerated lens flares which are all over the place, as a result of Anderson's playful use of lighting sources. Add to that a couple of excellent long takes (it's still an Anderson flick) and you have a visually striking film.
Still, the visuals have nothing on the soundtrack. Punch-Drunk Love is one of those film that demonstrates the effect a daring choice of music can have on a film. The music is pretty experimental, almost free form, at times drowning out entire conversations. While people are rattling on in the background and Sandler is slowly losing grip on himself, the nervous banter is silenced by an even twitchier soundtrack that pushes him (and the audience) right over the edge. The effect is nothing less than amazing.
Sandler is pretty much his typical self, only without the lewd jokes and without the Happy Madison gang backing him up. He plays a rather awkward and uncomfortable character, but he's likeable enough and his endless rants can be pretty funny. Watson is an interesting but somewhat strange love interest, though her role is clearly secondary. Luiz Guzman and Philip Seymour Hoffman are part of a noteworthy supporting cast, making sure the film doesn't fall short on acting talent.
Punch-Drunk Love strikes a rather implausible balance. While Anderson doesn't shun a more experimental approach, the core of the film remains surprisingly accessible. And even though Sandler is his usual self, he's restrained enough not to silence all the non-believers. I'm not sure exactly how they did it, but Anderson and Sandler delivered a film that would please both their fan bases, without drawing away attention from each other.
Punch-Drunk Love is a harmless romantic comedy and can definitely be enjoyed as such. But it's also offers a unique audiovisual experience. The camera work, the use of color, the crazy soundtrack and the quirky characters all indicate that this is not a film made by a director for hire. Anderson and Sandler complement each other and the result is one of the most peculiar films I've seen. A film I can heartily recommend to just about anyone.