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American Cinematographer Magazine

Punch-Drunk Love (2002)
Superbit Special Edition
2.35:1 (16x9 Enhanced)
DTS, Dolby Digital 6.1
Columbia Tri-Star, $28.96

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 score.

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

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© 2003 American Cinematographer.