Punch Drunk Love is a kind of movie we are all familiar with, but also one that is unlike any other. The initial shot of this movie makes director Paul Thomas Anderson’s vision clear: he aims to show us something we could not have seen otherwise. It is through his craft that the audience is treated to a subversion of the romantic comedy—a genre of film riddled with clichés. PDL is special because it is made up of things we are used to seeing and flips them on their head. This subversion of components generates something entirely different: a beautiful, intimate experience that demands that we change what we ask for from these kinds of movies.
On the outside, PDL gives no indication to what it actually is. Adam Sandler plays a down on his luck, well-meaning sucker who gets in a lot of trouble but still manages to get the girl at the end of the day. We know how so many movies with these elements are; they are shallow and uninitiated attempts at telling a worn-out story. Not only does the premise stink of death because it has been done so many times, but these movies also come out looking blander than a blade of grass. In a lesser movie, our characters may end up in Hawaii, but the camera is never able to show us any aspect that would make use of its setting. These generic movies may as well have been shot on a sound stage in Detroit. PDL rises above its predecessors by not repeating these mistakes, as if rising above is its purpose.
Anderson subverts the trope-filled story by interweaving it with interesting characters who are put in deliberately crafted set pieces. The shots are colourful and packed with interesting detail. There is tension in conversations between the characters because they have been written to have personalities and genuine quirks instead of factory-made traits like “caring too much” or “being the jealous type.” PDL is a love story that inspires the viewer to actually see what they are looking at. It makes the effort to make the audience care about the story, and the biggest reason for this is Adam Sandler’s character, which leads me to another subversion…
Adam Sandler is Barry Egan, a not-so-uncharacteristically violent idiot a-la Happy Gilmore or Big Daddy, but in Punch Drunk Love, the character he plays is complex. There is an effort behind showing the audience why he is weird and problematic. For the movie’s sake, it is not just a joke. Anxiety is a main theme, here; we see it in the immediate and arrhythmic music. Barry’s anxiety controls his actions, so when he has a fit of anger and starts breaking things in a restaurant, he gets kicked out. This is made to be an embarrassing moment, because the violence he expresses is followed with his own shame. He does not want to be this way, his quirks are not just punchlines, they are vices Barry needs to overcome. We are made to feel that Barry is a miserable man, because he obviously endures abuse from his family, making him an unhealthy character that might just break under the littlest amount of pressure. A lesser movie that affords its protagonist no more than five minutes of development would have played this situation for laughs, as we usually see happen in the hands of an uninterested director who is only there for the paycheck.
The look of this movie is almost as if it is taking on a challenge. A huge chunk of it is set in ordinary, day-to-day places, but Anderson overcomes this. Locations are still portrayed with colours that fly out of the screen. Even a grocery store is made vibrant through the mise-en-scene, with red soup cans and yellow packaging forming a rainbow of consumer goods that make it impossible for the viewer to ignore what is being displayed. Once an exotic destination, Hawaii has perhaps become another familiar location in our lives through the magic of Hollywood. So how is it made to be more than just a postcard, a backdrop for resolution and peace?
Within the story, Hawaii is not even sought after in any sense, it is actually ignored: Emily Watson’s character, Lena Leonard, is just going there for business, and Barry goes out of necessity. Hawaii is just another place until our characters finally unite there. Their coming together may be the most important moment in the movie, not just because it is arguably the best shot in the movie, but also because of what it signifies: change. Prior to this scene, the movie was mostly represented with cold and sharp colors: white is everywhere, on the walls, in the lighting. Even when we encounter more lively colors they belong to man-made things. The shots are tight, the music invasive. As mentioned before, these all contribute to an overall feeling of anxiety experienced by Barry. When Barry finally kisses Lena, we are met with an explosion of natural color: the luminescent shadows, the sweet pink sky, and sheet blue surround our characters and slap the viewer in the face with a realization: “I’ve seen this so many times before, but I’ve never seen it this way.”
PDL is a movie that subverts everything with which we are familiar. It shares with us the fact that we may need to look a little closer or a bit differently at things that we are used to seeing, or that we claim to know. Just like the harmonium that is dropped on Barry’s street, or just like Barry himself, it only takes a unique point of view to change what we may otherwise have been taking for granted.
PDL is special because it is made up of things we are used to seeing and flips them on their head. This subversion of components generates something entirely different: a beautiful, intimate experience that demands that we change what we ask for from these kinds of movies.