An art film starring Adam Sandler would seem to be too bizarre
to resist, yet most of last year's moviegoers did just that. Punch-Drunk
Love, directed with feverish intensity by Paul Thomas
Anderson, was the most original film of last year, managing
to take that hoariest of all genres - the romantic comedy
- and inject it with fear, tension and paranoia.
Coming after a pair of sprawling Los Angeles epics, Boogie
Nights (1997) and Magnolia (1999), Anderson
set out to make the most concise film possible for his
next effort. Punch-Drunk Love clocks in at a no-fat
95 minutes, and in paring away his excesses, Anderson delivered
his most personal film.
Sandler plays Barry Egan, the lonely and socially awkward
owner of a San Fernando Valley toilet-plunger factory who
has spent his life cowering before his seven domineering
sisters - making him prone to sporadic, blinding fits of
rage. When a cheery British woman named Lena (Emily Watson)
suddenly crashes into his life, Barry is torn between paralyzing
self-doubt and a desperate longing to break free of his neuroses
to woo her.
This plot might sound conventional, but the film is structured
as though the viewer is inside Barry's frazzled central nervous
system. Threats to his fragile psyche - ranging from a seemingly
innocuous phone-sex advertisement to the mazelike layout
of a Los Angeles apartment building - constantly hover around
the frame. But Barry's biggest fear is always other people.
Punch-Drunk Love is probably the most uncanny portrait of
social-anxiety disorder ever made.
The picture was Anderson's fourth consecutive collaboration
with director of photography Robert Elswit, ASC, and it marks
their riskiest cinematic venture yet. Shot in sumptuous Super
35mm, the cinematography consistently defies convention.
Scenes that seem nondescript - such as Barry and Lena strolling
past an unsightly Valley car dealership at night, or Barry
wandering down the white aisles of a 99 Cent store to search
for Healthy Choice pudding - have an oddly beautiful ambience.
By contrast, Barry and Lena's first meeting, a scene that
would seemingly call for a soft approach, is subjected to
brutal lens flare. The jarring strategy makes perfect sense,
as Barry is a man who reacts to commonplace social situations
with terror. But the film also keeps hinting at Barry's possible
escape from his psychological prison. Lena is always dressed
in either inviting red or angelic white, and scopitones (brief
blasts of saturated, impressionistic colors created by artist
Jeremy Blake) occasionally flood the screen, as though Barry's
mind is beginning to let in some light.
A movie of harsh visual extremes, Punch-Drunk Love was
a good choice for Sony's Superbit process, a high-bit-rate
digital encoding process that uses the disc's entire space
to optimize video quality while offering a choice of DTS
or Dolby Digital audio. Elswit's images look stunning, with
excellent contrast levels and sharpness, while Barry's ever-present
blue suit and the rainbow wash of colors on the scopitone
interludes are vibrantly reproduced. Only the occasional
blemish on the print prevents this disc from getting a perfect
A second disc of offbeat extras includes Blossoms & Blood,
a melange of alternate takes, deleted scenes and Blake's
scopitones, all set to Jon Brion's melancholy score. Also
featured are three more deleted scenes, more scopitones and
additional artwork by Blake, and three theatrical trailers.
- Chris Pizzello