Punch Drunk Love is what Anger Management could have been: a careful study of the explosive and hilarious effects of pent up anger and frustration as best exemplified by the enigma that is Adam Sandler. More than that, it’s a genuinely funny romantic comedy that has the audacity to find meaning in a simple but interesting tale of two people looking for love, instead of, as is par for the course, hamfisting through genre conventions to reach foregone conclusions. It also has the piece of mind to be restrained enough so as not to pull a single unearned gag, yet boasts tragicomic hilarity to rival or better any comedy of the past few decades.
Barry (Sandler) runs his own business, supplying as it happens, among other things, decorative plungers, and comes to work in a brilliant blue suit. He’s a lonely guy, naturally, whose quiet resentment of the bullying of his (seven) sisters occasionally explodes into childish but violent fits of anger. In due course, lonely Lena (Emma Watson) as much as forces Barry on a date, because he’s too retarded to act on her obvious carnal calls. Similarly, she must be crazy or desperate to chase after this wacko who shows every sign of being unstable. Or maybe it’s the nerves of meeting cute, rattling them to overlook the negatives and jump in and go for it: punch drunk love. In any case it’s chaos, but it’s organised, and it’s funny. As the torrent builds, we get a series of confessions of quaintly, faintly, and truly embarrassing secrets.
Sandler’s best performance – ever – thanks to director P.T. Anderson whose pacing is, as always, painfully precise, yet ebbs naturally, most notably with Sandler and his bursts of anger. The quirks, from the clarinet like a bottle out of the sky to the improv “ticks”* to the clickety urban jazz score to the seeming random camera pans and low angle shots to the… you get the picture, they’re many, and on multiple viewings they amalgamate the manifold uniqueness of a P.T. Anderson showing.
It’s always a risk deeming a resolution well earned, but it’s thoroughly so in this case, with a narrative that binds itself to a bacchanalial celebration of awkward romance. A true classic.
(* including those from a superb Phillip Seymour Hoffman who manages somehow to draw out the unbridled animal rage of Robert Carlyle’s Begbie from Trainspotting (1996))