Saturday, September 26, 2009

Great Acid Movies #25: PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE (2002)

Casting Adam Sandler in PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE was a gutsy move for director-writer Paul Thomas Anderson. Instead of uniting Jersey boys (Sandler's demographic) and cineaste hipsters (Anderson's) both groups stayed away in droves, snuffing the film's chances for box office recognition. A mad meditation on color, love, music and maturity, the 2002 film comes sandwiched between Anderson's better received epics MAGNOLIA and THERE WILL BE BLOOD. But it's no boondoggle; it's a gem and all it takes to see the luster is to get over yourself for hating HAPPY GILMORE.

Exploring the agony of having seven nagging older sisters, the ecstasy of first love in Hawaii, anger management and coming clean about porn addiction, PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE is really about sound and color and if you can key into that then the brilliance, the love and the redemption flow unstoppably all over your pants. Even if you saw it once and didn't like it, I'd say toss your expectations and sit in it, without expectations, one more time.

In the beginning it seems that Anderson's film is following the same Lynchian framework of ERASERHEAD -- the isolated everyman in a strange landscape of alienating industrial sounds and soul crushing neighbors and bullying relatives --but it's no nightmare. It's a fable or a light show, or a concert in words, and if casual Anderson fans tend to skip over this film in order to focus on his "big canvas" pictures, they miss the heart and soul of the Anderson auteur persona. Unlike his mentor Robert Altman, who can get bogged down in his actors' improv thesping, Anderson is a track-shot formalist at heart and in LOVE the cast may be small but this isn't a HARD EIGHT-style Sundancing chamber piece, it's a candy colored dazzler of lyrsergic intensity and late 1960s optimism still simmering in the deep recesses of even the most repressed dork's heart of hearts.

Anderson guides you, via Barry's shocking blue suit, to experience the movie as pure cinematic color. He even advises in the DVD gatefold:
Get Barry’s suit blue, blue blue. Don’t be shy. Get Barry’s shirt white. Don’t be afraid to let it bloom a bit. Turn up the contrast! Make sure your blacks are black and listen to loud.
PT loves long beautifully-constructed tracking shots, and here they take on a poetic abstraction, sometimes quite literally dissolving into the brilliant color morphing video art work of Jeremy Blake. That kind of pure cinematic abstract art is often misunderstood by mallrat American audiences trained by lackluster public school art programs to look dismally or obliviously on attempts to fuse abstract poetry and surrealism into mainstream movies (they line up to see FANTASIA during its re-release, but promptly get restless and fall asleep, and who can blame them?). Adam Sandler and art are, to the great majority of filmgoers in this country, mutually exclusive. Art is what bores you at museums while you wait it out til cocktail hour; Sandler is what you watch way, way after cocktail hour, after dinner, after the parents have gone to bed and your townie friends show up with a case of beer... and probably fucking Slim Jims. If they bring some tabs of acid too, though, you'll want PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE to split the difference... suddenly Adam Sandler sulking through the abstract parts of FANTASIA begins to make perfect... whoa, is that... a... why does he have a harmonium on his desk, man? Far out.

This is Anderson's tale of Kafka-Lynch insanity but it carries the low key sense of redemption that can be found only in Val Lewton's shadowy compassion. Like Lewton, Anderson has an ability to be patient with his self-centered characters, leading them and loving them unto awakening and transformation. A comparison for the visual style would have to be the Coen Brothers, but the Coens' love is much harsher and deriding. Anderson's sibling expression on the other hand is that of a loving older brother: if there's some need to poke fun and be cruel, it's always with an inevitable beatific and benevolent purpose (forcing the younger sibling to stand up for himself, for example) and very protective. To put it very broadly, Anderson's movies are older brother mentorships, inspiring awareness of love and self-reliance, ala Nicholas Ray or Altman, while the Coen Brothers are witty formalist meditations that inspire awareness of existential mortality and the inevitable crunch crunch of death's jaws, ala Aldrich or Kubrick.


That sort of tough love of an older brother for a younger sister or brother is felt especially deeply in PUNCH-DRUNK, which chronicles the "coming out" of one of L.A's more deeply hidden sweet souls. As friendly to our cause as that arc is, it's nonetheless the visual landscape of the film that merits the lysergic connection. The pinks and blues and whites and deep black silhouettes are all the sort of stuff many directors use to hide the flimsy material but in PUNCH-DRUNK's case it is the material; the style shapes and frames and focuses and blurs until we recognize that pure art is the way to shift attention from the banal blinders-on crawl of drab social reality into the liquid present where life is a continually moving, breathing changing force expressing itself constantly through the air, the stars and the sea and every random song select or spin of the roulette wheel. So when you see PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE even stone cold sober you can follow Anderson's breadcrumb trail right into that same candy colored universe of egoless nonjudgmental acceptance of all life as it is right here right now. In short, watching this movie gets you totally "TOASTED" on art, love, and a dizzying array of overlapping dialogue by the seven sisters, who make the witches of MACBETH seem like Girls Gone Wild.

The sisters are just one facet of this film which hold massive hidden depth within its seemingly "quirky indie" surface. They all talk simultaneously while saying different relevant things, like a maddening Greek chorus with everyone on the wrong page of the script. There's parts in this film that go by so fast they're easy to miss the first time around: the sparkling modern kitchen and nanny with baby in the house of the conniving sex chat blackmailer "Georgia" is something I want to see again, for example. Her contented, housewife status attests to the previous scams she's pulled with the mystically named "Mattress Man" (Phillip Seymour Hoffman). As said dark father/older brother figure, Hoffman is also worth seeing several times to get all the great, blustery David Mamet-ish expletive/repetitive venom. Hoffman is the evil version of Burt Reynolds in BOOGIE NIGHTS or the Frank Mackey Tom Cruise character grown old and portly. From a lysergi-mythic vantage point, Mattress Man is seen not as a dark father per se, but more an older brother, the one whom appoints himself the villain that must be faced/stood up to in order to "earn" the passage into manhood and marriage. Brevity prevents me from gushing in length about the always revealing Emily Watson, perfectly cast as the patient love interest, eyes sparkling with undisguised love and fascination with violence.

Lastly, what can you say about Sandler in this film, other than he finally finds a role that will use his Nicholas Ray-little-boy-lost rage for good rather than the evil? I'll confess I'm way too highbrow to have seen even a single Sandler movie other than this one (I went to high school with too many boys like him to feel anything but lunchroom nausea at the very thought of BILLY MADISON), but after seeing LOVE a second time, I'm seriously considering throwing HAPPY GILMORE or something onto my cue.

You o snobby reader needn't get that drastic. Just open your heart and forgive Sandler his schnooky trespasses and dig on his big triumph that may have slipped you by one way or another. More importantly, if you've seen it once, you haven't really seen it. Anderson redeemed Mark Wahlberg (BOOGIE NIGHTS) and Tom Cruise (MAGNOLIA), and you're only a hold-out in the waiting room of ignorance if you can't finally come in and admit he's done the same for Sandler. So ignore the "misfire" tags of those critics too hung up on expectations to dig a low-key candy-colored classic in their midst... I mean it should be a Valentine's Day essential! It's a movie that you can't help but connect to your own life, it helps you remember that you too are capable of true love and redemption. I mean yeah, it's a tripper movie about a total square, man. But dig, he's got cajones now. El hombre has the love in his life; he's a man at last; he's encountered the eternal maturation flower of the third eye open. He's let his spirit fly and crunch at will. It ain't got drugs, but the movie itself is one giant candy tab... just turn up the contrast, crank up the volume and Anderson'll take you there... to the Loveland, where redemption comes in bright colored sheets, preferably displayed at eye level in the center aisle... and the music is so good you need to play it loud, or else you haven't even really seen it



Read my very special Andrew Sarris blogathon overview on Paul Thomas Anderson here

6 comments:

  1. Yeah, this IS a great film. I daresay mebbe even a masterpiece that largely flew under the cultural radar as you point out. It's a shame because it really is a deliriously romantic film with an insanely bright primary color scheme.

    The film really opens up once Sandler arrives in Hawaii and is reunited with Emily Watson. Fantastic stuff. I'm really glad I got to see this film on the big screen with the images blown up to epic proportions and the sound cranked WAY up.

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  2. Thanks for your comment, J.D. And it's a sad statement as well re: your big screen experience, as so many movies are being seen on ipods and iphones now.

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  3. I need to see this again; on first viewing it was a pleasant experience which seemed to have been exaggerated by a lot of Anderson partisans. I admit to having been - and continuing to be - a little resistant to P.T.'s tractor beam. I knew too many kids who thought he was the end-all, be-all of cinema and the auteur's trademark arrogance also rankled. But Punch-Drunk deserves another chance, and if nothing else, I like the idea of it (though I wish the plot had been a little more adventurous, or perhaps been no plot at all, I don't know...)

    Give Billy Madison a spin and see what you think. Put aside all the frat-boy acclaim and just watch it cold as you can: it's actually quite clever in its stupidity, or so I remember it. I was in jr. high/high school during its heyday, so I COULDN'T not see it and I remember it being much funnier than I expected. After Happy Gilmore he though he kind of lost it: his films had to be pretty low-budget pieces of trash to really charm.

    Since we're talking generational differences, I'm guessing you've never seen the Shelley Duvall Fairie Tale Theatre series, let alone the episode with Joan Collins as the witch in Hansel & Gretel. It's on instant Netflix, and I still haven't re-watched it (it traumatized me as a child) but I suspect THAT would make a harrowing acid experience. Mick Jagger as the Japanese emperor in The Nightingale would also be quite trippy, particularly the scene where he's visited by the blue body-painted figure of Death (I just linked up to the series promo on my blog so you can see snippets there...)

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  4. I would say if you HAD to watch one of Sandler's mindless comedies go for HAPPY GILMORE which riffs on CADDYSHACK (never a bad thing) and features Ben Stiller in a hilarious cameo as a malevolent nursing home attendant with a '70s porno star mustache that is worth the price of admission alone.

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  5. great.This is very great.Sandler is a great actor.

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  6. Very nice review. insights and writing. I'm a huge PT Anderson fan and while this is not my favorite of his by a long-shot it is still a film I like a lot. Sandler is actually pretty damn good in these kinds of roles and he proved it in another great film called Reign Over Me. I thought The Master was my first disapointment from PT Anderson, just didn't like it.

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