PRINT November 2002


Paul Thomas Anderson

“GEEK LOVE” WOULD BE the perfect title for Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film, were it not already taken by Katherine Dunn’s 1989 carny novel. Instead, the young writer-director settled for Punch-Drunk Love to describe his “$25 million Adam Sandler art-house movie,” a conscious attempt to rein in his epic, ensemble-cast instincts and have a puckish go at the moribund romantic-comedy genre. Punch-Drunk’s high/low high jinks are immediately apparent, pairing Hollywood’s lowbrow cash cow Sandler with Lars von Trier alumna Emily Watson and mingling a nonprofessional supporting cast with the artiest mise-en-scène of Anderson’s career, including abstract digital animation sequences by New York–based artist Jeremy Blake.

Anderson’s previous films—the downbeat gambling noir Hard Eight (1996), the protean Goodfellas-for-the-jizz-biz Boogie Nights (1997), and the sprawling LA AA meeting Magnolia (1999)—exhibited prodigious formal mastery, a rare writerly wit, and a video-clerk knowledge of film history not seen since Reservoir Dogs. As with Tarantino, any movie nerd worth his late fees can spot Anderson’s influences readily, but his undeniable flair for the medium and bittersweet feel for the human comedy lift his films well above pastiche. If Scorsese guided Boogie Nights and the Altman of Short Cuts haunted Magnolia, then the gorgeously photographed, classic Hollywood–quoting artifice of the Coen brothers informs Punch-Drunk Love—though Anderson populates his film with somewhat believable human beings rather than well-played windup dolls.

Sandler’s character, Barry Egan, recalls John C. Reilly’s Officer Jim Kurring in Magnolia—a shy, simple soul ambling his way through a world of unexpected violence, emotional abuse, and moral turpitude. And like Reilly’s dopey, well-meaning cop, he represents the good-hearted geek inside us all, quietly desperate for love but pathetically incapable of finding it. Unlike the impossibly patient Kurring, though, Barry has severe anger-management issues.

As the film opens we see Barry at a desk in an off-center, color-coordinated composition, making a phone call from his San Fernando Valley warehouse office (a “novelty” toilet plunger business) to verify the rules of a frequent-flier cross-promotion. The call, the character, the surroundings are all utterly mundane yet hyperreal, as if from a ’50s Technicolor melodrama—or a Coen brothers film. Barry’s suit is the kind of fluorescent royal blue usually reserved for airline stewardess uniforms, and throughout Punch-Drunk Anderson imbues the sets and costumes with red, white, and blue ensembles of the sort rarely seen outside of airport terminals. The film’s other color schemes derive from the retina-scorching hues of product packaging—Tide orange, M&M yellow, Hawaiian Punch red, Welch’s purple—resulting in an haute strip-mall palette echoed by Blake’s trippy interludes and reaching apotheosis in an interior establishing shot of a ninety-nine-cent store lifted wholesale from Andreas Gursky.

As Barry’s pushy sisters each phone to make sure he’s coming to their party, it becomes clear that his muted doofusness is the result of years of teasing and henpecking from his seven sisters (they erupt into a tittering chorus of “Remember how we used to call you Gay Boy?” when he reluctantly arrives for dinner; he will smash a glass door in response). In between calls, Barry goes out to the street and three jarring events transpire: an SUV tumbles end-over-end down the street; a taxicab deposits a broken harmonium in the middle of one lane (Barry takes it inside); and a shy, nervy British woman (Watson) asks him to watch her car until the mechanic next-door opens shop.

Watson’s arrival is, it turns out, a ploy for a date, but Barry’s thoughts are elsewhere: He’s discovered that, due to a marketing oversight, if he buys $3,000 worth of Healthy Choice pudding, he can amass one million free miles from American Airlines. Though he has no yen for travel (the framed photo in his office is an aerial shot of his own warehouse), the loophole intrigues him. As does the harmonium, which he repairs with duct tape and starts to play. This instrument (cheap Freudian read: broken pump organ equals Barry’s sex life) cues the first of Blake’s painterly animations (washy color fields resolving into multihued “harp strings” and twinkling stars, ostensibly evoking love) and Jon Brion’s score, which alternates between the Sturm and Clang of later Tom Waits and the stoned Hawaiian languor of the Beach Boys’ Smiley Smile. That night, while clipping Healthy Choice coupons from a newspaper in his drab apartment, Barry sees a phone-sex ad and decides to call. The woman he reaches, “Georgia,” will plunge him into perhaps the first noir subplot emanating from Provo, Utah, but not before Anderson gets to flaunt his comic chops, as in this exchange between “Georgia” and Barry: “Are you watching a porno? Are you stroking?” “No, I’m talking to you.” “Well, I’m looking at my shaved pussy.” “Doesn’t matter, you sound very personable.”

As the Mormon menace increases, Barry and Watson’s character, Lena, will date disastrously, but in the end Barry follows her to Hawaii, where they fall in love, whisper sweet nothings like “I want to smash your face with a sledgehammer it’s so pretty,” and lock lips in silhouette for the most stylized Hollywood kiss since Busby Berkeley. Anderson may tie things up too quickly—a wholly satisfying ninety-minute script is, apparently, still beyond him—but he has a ball reworking old Hollywood conventions and, with the aid of Blake and Brion, has crafted his most beautiful, if lightest, film to date. Shame about that title.

Andrew Hultkrans is editor in chief of Bookforum.