Paul Thomas Anderson's fourth film features sex phoneline blackmail, crunching crowbar attacks, terrifying car crashes, psychotic rages, masturbation and relentlessly profane language. It is also one of the most romantic films of the decade so far, further proof of Anderson's willingness to subvert formula and bravely try to put new twists on old themes.
Many eyebrows were raised when Adam Sandler was announced as the star of Anderson's much-anticipated follow-up to 1999's Magnolia. Sure, Tom Cruise had shone in that sprawling psychodrama, but the likes of Born On The Fourth Of July had already proved that the Cruiser had some dramatic chops. Sandler's CV up to that point was comprised solely of undemanding mainstream comedies that range from the entertaining (The Wedding Singer) to the execrable (The Waterboy), most hovering nearer the latter category. And while his role in Punch-Drunk Love could have been played just as well by, say, Nicolas Cage or John Cusack, he nevertheless does a tremendous job as the socially inept, pathetic-but-lovable Barry Egan. Sandler's character isn't particularly different from the belligerent outsider who refuses to grow up that he often plays, but by neutering the actor's usual crowd-pleasing comedy antics, Anderson has created something altogether more disturbing.
Egan works out of a warehouse specialising in selling tacky novelty items, and leads a lonely, single life constantly under the shadow of his seven overbearing sisters. When one of them decides that it's time for Barry to get a girlfriend, he is initially resistant to such blatant matchmaking ("I don't do that kind of thing" he tells her). But fate has its way, and soon he is smitten with pretty Lena (a terrific Emily Watson), and against all the odds she seems to find him just as alluring. So a tentative relationship begins, but can love survive Barry's tendency to react to uncomfortable situations with random bouts of self-destructive violence, or the fact that he is being extorted by the violent members of a phone sex outfit?
Punch-Drunk Love is a deeply strange film that exists in its own little dream world. The combination of romantic whimsy and harder adult material is reminiscent of David Lynch and the Coen brothers, but this comes with more heart than those directors are usually inclined to give their stories. You really like Barry and Lena, their first kiss, half way through the film, is a wonderfully uplifting moment, and there's a great sense of relief when it becomes clear that for all his quirks and psychoses, she does really like him too.
The film is often very funny, but a few moments of slapstick aside, there aren't many gags as such; the humour is simply inherent within the director's skewed worldview. There are some great, quirky touches — Barry is buying hundreds of chocolate puddings in order to take advantage of a loop-hole he has discovered in their free air miles offer, while the small piano he finds dumped on the pavement in the opening scenes seems to grow in importance as the film develops.
As with Boogie Nights and Magnolia, Anderson uses music and colour to propel his film forward at a breakneck pace (at 95 minutes, this is almost half the length of its predecessor). Jon Brion's innovative score moves from lush orchestrations to surreal cartoon music, and the stand-out sequence in which Lena asks Barry out for their first date is scored like a Michael Mann action setpiece, pounding percussion almost drowning out the dialogue. The camera rarely stays still, while appearances from Anderson regulars Luis Guzmán and Philip Seymour Hoffman remind us that this truly is the director's joint; and anything can happen.