Ostensibly 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 it as a purely sensory experience (ala FANTASIA or 2001) 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 rolled-up expectations in the trash and just sit in it, without expectations, one more time. For though it seems that Anderson 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 --it's more a fable or a light show, or a concert in words. 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 it loud.Yeah... he 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 balefully on attempts to infuse abstract poetry and surrealism into mainstream movies. 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 count the minutes to 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. What is that thing?
This is Anderson's tale of Kafka-Lynch insanity but it carries the low key sense of redemption. Like Val 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 love on the other hand is that of an 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 he's 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 adding you forward into ever more complex and radiant equations. 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 success of previous scams she's pulled with the mystically named "Mattress Man" (Phillip Seymour Hoffman). As said the dark father/older brother figure, Hoffman is also worth seeing several times to get all the great, blustery David Mamet-ish expletive/repetitive venom. He's 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 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 uses 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 a big triumph that may have slipped by you 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. 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 opening. 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 to savor that blue suit, 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