The Adam Sandler Exception – A Review of Punch-Drunk Love

Adam Sandler is not a man known for his acting chops. His soft, monotonic voice and odd expressions remind you of that slightly unnerving school teacher sending you off to a detention for no good reason whatsoever. He doesn’t seem like the character actor type. He acts either brash, quietly tense or just…Adam Sandler. Although he’s made a slew of not particularly well received films (Grown Ups, Grown Ups 2, The Ridiculous Six, The Cobbler, Pixels, etc.), he does lead the odd film that holds a good place in my cinematic memories – namely The Wedding Singer and Happy Gilmore.

There is one, however, that stands out to me for its anomalous brilliance. Where nuanced emotion and consistent strains of a dull life are brought to the screen in compelling ways by none other than…you guessed it, Adam Sandler. I first heard of Punch-Drunk Love (PDL) in one of the many lists of underrated films on Netflix and found it to be a firm favourite of not only Lee Unkrich (Pixar Director/Editor/Screenwriter) and many others but also Mark Kermode, a respected film critic who I greatly admire myself.

By the time the credits had rolled I’d long given up trying to control the stupid smirk stamped on my face. It was the first time I had realised that a great film makes use of every single scene. Where each one is integral to the films arc, pacing and would simply not be the same without it.

I have never been much good at summing up film plots, so here’s a synopsis from IMDb (that I’ve slightly upgraded): “A psychologically troubled [toilet plunger] supplier, Barry, with seven pushy sisters is nudged towards romance with an English woman, all the while being extorted by a phone-sex line run by a crooked mattress salesman, and purchasing stunning amounts of pudding [to exploit an air-miles promotion loophole].” Is that not the most stupid and darn-right random film summary you’ve ever read? At least for a while? Well that’s not only exactly why I love it for how ridiculous and absurd it sounds but also the fact all these irrelevant parts somehow intimately tie together to create Barry’s story. It’s wonderful.

There are several themes in the film that stand out to me both times I’ve watched it with each being portrayed through powerful use of an individual tool of cinema. It’s fascinating to see how they’ve been categorised and then end up melding together in the film.

  • In Framing – Isolation
  • In Sound – Attachment and Connection
  • In Colour – The previous two put together
  • In Writing – Boldness and Unpredictability

These might all sound completely befuddling but after your first (or second!) viewing they’ll hopefully make a little more sense. That’s not if but when because you should by all means watch this film if you have not done so already.

Before exploring these, I must confess I always wondered why Paul T. Anderson picked Adam Sandler. On separate occasions, after Anderson expressed a wish to make an ‘Adam Sandler Comedy’ and explained he wanted to work with him on his next film, press groups laughed out loud as if he was a joking. Fast forward to it eventually playing at Cannes where Anderson won the illustrious Best Director Palm d’Or for it and Adam Sandler was nominated for a Golden Globe. So I’d say they both had the last laugh.

They were also already close friends and I believe this aided to no-end with the films incredible outcome. Paul T Anderson was able to write the character around Sandler’s strengths and quirky personality of which he was familiar. Sandler then doesn’t need to rely on brashness and big gestures to make impact, he can actually settle into the role.

Furthermore, this film was a passion project for Anderson and Jon Brion, the composer, but at a poorly placed time in their lives; Anderson was breaking up with his girlfriend, singer Fiona Apple, and Brion was breaking up with one of the film’s actresses, Mary Lynn Rajskub. Although this is a sad situation I would not be surprised if it contributed to a greater intensity of focus on the film and a streak of melancholic creativity from them both.

This leads to the first theme of isolation and its progressive undoing during the film. As I mentioned earlier the Framing is where this is emphasised. Barry (Adam Sandler’s character) is left, several times, filling only a small portion of shots where you expect more people to be. There are voids where two-shot frames are left as a one-shot scene. The scene in Barry’s home for example, where he is on the late-night call line, plays this out perfectly and in a single take! We join him sat alone at his dining table. He fidgets and paces between the sofa and kitchen either side, making known the emptiness of his home, and stutters over his shyness as he attempts to have an innocent chat with no wish for the more intimate experience.

Not to mention the endlessly enigmatic opening scene:

PDL opener           PDL harmonium

Barry at his desk in the opening shot just before meeting the dastardly Harmonium

There are no opening credits whatsoever. No introduction. Just Barry at his desk dressed in his uncharacteristically eye-catching azure blue suit, greeted by a harmonium crashing into his life soon after. What the harmonium fully means within the film’s narrative I am still yet to understand. Perhaps there is none but the bold colour of his suit (which seems to be his only item of clothing) and that of the girl he meets fully play their roles of individualism and connection within PDL.

Barry’s blue and the empty whites that surround him, Lena’s red (Barry’s love interest) and the short interludes of Jeremy Blake’s rainbows of pink strips give the film categorical points of interest. The block colours for the characters are then mixed together as they fall for each other in a literal spectrum of colour-smeared transition scenes. There’s more on this at an even keener website blog I found here.

In one of my favourite moments of the film, which I just couldn’t leave unmentioned, Barry forgets which apartment is Lena’s and proceeds to sprint throughout the building looking for her door. His whole pursuit of love is boiled down to this one light-hearted sequence that shows his utter dedication. The long shots of him running through the entrapping maze of endless archways even chase the film’s tone of Barry’s apparent fate to forever be alone. It’s silly and stupid and great because it’s such a simple and engaging sequence. I feel his frustration and am always rooting for him to find that door. It’s simple, effective, comedic, beautifully shot and all done without a need for dialogue. Film doesn’t get much more skilful than that.

PDL corridor
Barry on the run

Having already mentioned the harmonium, it basically plays a supporting role in the film and was first introduced to Anderson by Brion during their previous film together, Magnolia. Anderson loved it so much he brought it into this one. PDL has a beautiful score in its own right but the harmonium actually acts as a counterpoint to Barry’s isolation shown on camera. He builds an attachment to this quirky object (which he goes to every time he’s in distress) and there is even a direct reference after he punches the wall in frustration and rests his bloodied hand on its keys revealing cuts on his knuckles that spell out ‘love’. The harmonium is something for his introverted-self to care for. There’s also the weirdly wonderful song ‘He Needs Me’, sang by Shelley Duvall of The Shining fame, which comes up twice in the film’s second half to perfectly compliment Barry and Lena delightful peculiarity.

All I can say is this “Arthouse Adam Sandler Film”, as PT Anderson himself calls it, is a tough one to crack with its confusing emotions, oddball narrative and jarring characters. There’s more that can be explored in Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s character and his rivalry with Barry but with all the persistent lengths of film dissecting one can go to, Punch-Drunk Love is a piece whose wacky love for the magnificently mediocre is just calling out to be experienced on an otherwise uneventful quiet evening in.

Here’s a few links to dig into if you end up liking the film that much:

Thanks for reading,

The Man Without A Plan


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