Thursday, December 12, 2013

Punch Drunk Love (2002): Inverting the Formula

Punch Drunk Love (2002)
dir: p.t. anderson

It's fairly easy to say that given the work of p.t. anderson, he wouldn't make a movie that was an Adam Sandler vehicle. And, given the work of Adam Sandler, he normally wouldn't deign to appear in something as cerebral as a p.t. anderson film. Yet, in 2002, anderson and Sandler collaborated on a film which took the usual formula of an Adam Sandler film and flipped it on its head. In the process, anderson also turned his own formula on its head. And, out came the best movie that didn't satisfy either fan base.

A typical Adam Sandler character is that of a middle or upper class white man with hilarious anger problems. Normally, he ends up screaming at a wide variety of people just out of the blue, and also feeling like the whole world is pressuring him. The plot of an Adam Sandler film is usually that character being acted upon by 2 forces - an outside force, and a female - in order to deal with his emotional stuntedness and win the girl. Or, at least that had been the main plot through the mid-2000s.

Punch Drunk Love follows that formula to a T. Barry Egan (Sandler) is an owner of a novelty element distribution center. One thing we notice that he's selling is novelty plungers. Egan also suffers from emotional problems that could be seen as semi-autistic in nature, but also the results of being the only boy in a family of forceful females. Early in the film, he pitches fits that break glass doors, and screams at his sisters and everybody else who is picking on him.

Barry, being single, starts calling a sex hotline after a particularly contentious day. But, the operator at the other end begins to extort Barry for money. She has his credit card information, and starts pressing him for even more money. This is a full-on extortion operation run by Dean Trumbell (Philip Seymour Hoffman) out of his mattress operation. And, this outside force causes Barry to use his emotional anger problem and focus it on a specific target in order to extricate himself from the problem.

One of Barry's sisters also high pressures Barry into going on a blind date with her co-worker Lena Leonard (Emily Watson), introducing the love interest of the film. She is a quirky, quiet woman who is able to take Barry in strides, and Barry falls in love with her as a person who won't pressure him or constantly berate him. Barry wants to better himself for Lena.

It is the Adam Sandler formula...except Sandler is played as obviously disturbed. He isn't an entitled straight white guy with whom the audience is expected to completely relate. Sandler is somebody whom we're meant to hope gets better for the sake of everybody else around her. The comedy, as people see it as a comedy, isn't derived from the aggressive outbursts that usually are the hallmark cues for a Sandler comedy. When Sandler busts the sliding door, or the restaurant bathroom, he's fucking scary as hell. It isn't the humor of Sandler punching Bob Barker saying "The price is wrong, bitch." It's intimidating.

p.t. anderson also hasn't repeated himself. Punch Drunk Love isn't an analysis of an era, or a location, or both as almost all of his other movies are. Punch Drunk Love is a study of a singular character. It uses the Sandler formula as placement for the era or location. Magnolia rips apart the connectedness of the Los Angeles story, such as Short Cuts, or Crash. Boogie Nights dissects the rise and fall of the cocaine-induced porn era. There Will Be Blood uses the development of the oil tycoon as a backdrop to dissect family and faith. But, then there's Punch Drunk Love, which uses the Sandler formula to see how people actually do react to people with anger issues.

Not only is the Sandler formula inverted, but so is the anderson forumla. By making the external internal, we're treated to a weirdly deep analysis and indictment of pop culture, while also bringing up the spectre of asperger's or austism. This actually is my favorite p.t. anderson movie, but it isn't nearly as picked up among the usual fan base.

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