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Weekly Watch: ‘Punch-Drunk Love’ explores insecurity and love

| Monday, March 21, 2016

Punch-Drunk_Love_WebEric Richelsen | The Observer

“And all at once I knew … ”

Do you remember your first time? I sure do. There was music — strings, a xylophone and a harmonium. It was at once too loud and not loud enough, and it dovetailed with splashes of bright color, delivering synesthetic bliss.

There’s nothing quite like seeing a Paul Thomas Anderson movie for the first time. Watching “Punch-Drunk Love” on an iPad in the back seat of my mom’s car was an experience I knew I would never forget.

“And bye-bye you stupid [expletive]”

“Punch-Drunk Love” — Anderson’s shortest and sweetest movie — took my breath away. That Barry Egan (Adam Sandler) runs a novelty plunger business is quirky without being twee. The same goes for his real-life inspired plot to acquire a million frequent-flyer miles by purchasing thousands of dollars of pudding. With any luck, his access to free airline tickets will allow him to accompany Lena Leonard (Emily Watson), the woman he loves, on her travels around the world for business.

Fittingly, this off-kilter story is presented as an ethereal vision: images are overexposed, yet punctuated with splashes of bright color like Barry’s blue suit and Lena’s red dress, and the ever-present musical score typically vies with the overlapping dialogue for your attention. Anderson nods to a rich tradition of Technicolor classics, French New Wave movies like “A Woman Is a Woman,” and the work of New Hollywood directors like Robert Altman, all in the name of distorting our sensory experience.

The film’s charms extend beyond both its premise and its surface. The scene in which the troubled Barry asks his dentist brother-in-law for help, confessing that he doesn’t like himself, showcases Anderson’s talent as a writer and Sandler’s talent as an actor. You’re not sure whether to laugh at Barry’s fundamental misunderstanding of the title “doctor” as it’s applied to dentists, or cry at his aching vulnerability. This is another way of saying “Punch-Drunk Love” captures the complexities of true humanity.

These dark moments are balanced by scenes of whimsical humor. Barry paces about a grocery store in search of the cheapest foodstuff that can earn him frequent-flyer miles. “What am I looking for?” he whispers, not to himself, but to the aisles and shelves. “Talk to me.” He stops. There it is. “Pudding.” Of course.

Watching this lovely amalgam of styles, moods and emotions is like talking to a cute girl at a party — everything you do, say or feel is accompanied by the skeptical voice of your conscience. Does she think I’m funny? Smart? Can she tell I’m trying too hard? Just as Barry torments himself over the self-perceived stupidity of saying “bye-bye” to Lena at the end of the their first date, you start to wonder if you’re having a sane reaction to “Punch-Drunk Love.” Is it okay to like an Adam Sandler movie this much? What will my friends think? Will they think I’m dumb? Will they think I’m trying too hard to be contrarian? Barry’s insecurities — so wonderfully rendered by the combination of Sandler’s superb acting, Robert Elswit’s Kubrickian photography and Jon Brion’s melancholic score — spark our own.

“Could you just let me redeem the mileage?”

There’s a sincerity and innocence to Barry that makes him impossible to resist, obsessive-compulsive tendencies and all. Despite the mistakes Barry made — destroying the restaurant bathroom, leaving Lena at the hospital alone — Lena could never have rejected this plea. Their final embrace is an affirmation of that obscure Beatles song about love. It also echoes the iconic final line of the film “Some Like it Hot.”

“Punch-Drunk Love” is about the futility of worrying about saying “bye-bye” or trying too hard to impress a girl. These manifestations of insecurity — along with those that come with deeply enjoying an Adam Sandler movie — are silly. No one except your insecure self cares if you say something dumb like “bye-bye” or love a movie starring a clown like Sandler, because everyone else knows that nobody’s perfect, and all you need is love. “Punch-Drunk Love” knows this. So does Lena. And the proof, as they say, is in the pudding.

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