Although I’m mad for Paul Thomas Anderson’s new picture, Punch-Drunk Love, I also suspect it’s made me a little crazy. Why else should I fall, and fall hard, for the world’s first one-character romantic comedy? The tale of a wheezing, withdrawn young man in suburban Los Angeles and the woman who unaccountably redeems him, Punch-Drunk Love bursts with music, color, movement, wit, passion, suspense–everything you might want, except for the woman herself.
Her absence can’t be an accident. In previous pictures such as Boogie Nights and Magnolia, Anderson has put dozens of actors onto the screen and given each a delectable moment to play, or more often a chewable monologue. So it’s not just a change in scale that makes Punch-Drunk Love seem a departure from his earlier movies, which ran longer than this one by an hour or more. The deeper difference lies in the way Anderson’s worldview has contracted, so that the movie seems to take place in the head of only one man.
Like Anderson’s earlier characters, Barry Egan walks into the movie with a résumé suitable for realist fiction. He’s got a defining occupation (as a wholesale merchant of novelty toilet plungers), a vivid family background (he cringes before seven bullying sisters) and a behavioral pattern that hints at psychological depth. Barry practices a craven politeness, except when overcome by the sudden need to smash; and since he’s being played by Adam Sandler, a comic actor known for his wise-ass shleppiness, this side of the character comes before us pre-interpreted.
By contrast, Barry’s love interest is so thinly conceived as to approach the wraithlike. She, too, is played by a performer with an established screen persona–although not that established, since the movies in which Emily Watson has appeared, wrapping her suffering in a high-strung, sensuous embrace, have reached a mere fraction of Sandler’s audience. Watson’s presence puts some flesh on the character of Lena Leonard; but without the detail that’s been lavished on Barry, Lena threatens to melt back into the sunlight from which she seems to have materialized.
Lena is, in fact, the third unexplained phenomenon to manifest itself in Punch-Drunk Love. The first is a doomed car, which goes crashing, shrieking, tumbling through a warehouse district of the San Fernando Valley just after dawn, with no cause for this catastrophe other than Barry’s having glanced down the street. The second apparition, which follows immediately, is a red van, which pulls up in front of Barry as if in continuation of the wreck. Unseen workers remove a harmonium (Barry will call it a “little piano”) and place it at his feet. Then, soon after the van speeds off, Lena saunters down the alley to Barry’s warehouse with the sun glaring behind her, so that you make out very little except her red outfit. You might say that Lena personifies the surprises that have preceded her. She sums up an experience of unforeseen, bone-shaking loss of control, and a promise that music might come from a small, still-mute crate.
If Barry were played by a standard leading man, you would be justified at this point in resolving never to see Punch-Drunk Love, and also in ripping to shreds this page of the magazine. The movie would be just another feature-length projection of male fantasy; but then, there is nothing standard about the choice of Sandler for the lead. An infant clomping around in the body of a long-faced, mouth-breathing adult, Sandler seems in Punch-Drunk Love to have no padding on his feelings. His Barry shields his eyes at every light, shrinks back from every noise. Emotions register in him immediately, in a performance that’s as beautiful and unself-conscious as it is unexpected. What registers most in Barry, as he stands before Lena, is something like the sense of astonishment, awe and pain that babies feel when they learn that the mother is a separate person.