Barry Egan is a pure Adam Sandler character: emotionally stunted, prone to fits of rage and yelling, and with a real heart somewhere under it all. Paul Thomas Anderson’s simple insight behind Punch-Drunk Love is that he has Sandler portray that honestly, and he films it honestly. This kind of character isn’t so much a light-comic guy as someone who’s about two steps away from a nervous breakdown or killing spree.
Then, one day, a woman (Emily Watson) and a harmonium come into his life, and everything changes. And I do mean everything: the screen starts bursting into Jeremy Blake’s abstract color, Robert Elswit’s cinematography goes from blues to reds and yellows, Jon Brion’s score switches between noisy and goofy and swooning and never lets up, and a phone-sex call brings an uncontained Philip Seymour Hoffman (“SHUT, SHUT, SHUT, SHUT, SHUT UP”) into the world.
Anderson’s previous films (Hard Eight/Sydney, Boogie Nights, Magnolia) were sprawling works of plot and character, with psychological flourishes; here he reduced things down to one real character and went all in on the psychology. Punch-Drunk Love is less a story than a cinematic poem, and it’s still one of the most astonishing things he ever did. It’s a sorta fairytale.
Punch-Drunk Love streams free on Amazon Prime.