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On Punch-Drunk Love

In what’s bound to be my most topical post in months, I’d like to talk about Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2002 film Punch-Drunk Love. I haven’t seen it since it came out, at which time it ranked as my least favorite Anderson film and my third-favorite Adam Sandler film. (This is the one opinion of mine that hasn’t changed; at the time of its release, I’d only seen Magnolia and every Adam Sandler star vehicle ever made. Since then, I’ve caught up on Anderson’s filmography and found myself blown away by Hard Eight, then There Will Be Blood, and finally Boogie Nights.

About a year ago, I had a hankering to see Punch-Drunk Love again. It’s taken me this long to get to it, and the results will in no way surprise you: it remains a big, ramshackle mess, almost anchored by a career-best performance from Sandler and beautiful, artsy-fartsy cinematography by Anderson’s go-to cinematographer, Robert Elswit.

It doesn’t really add up to anything, though. As I recall (and hopefully I recall correctly, since I have zero interest in taking time to research this), early buzz had it that Anderson wanted to deconstruct the Sandler-style antihero. He spent time in the writers’ room at Saturday Night Live learning the craft of sketch during arguably the show’s worst period since 1980, and he went and made a movie that sometimes seems like a realistic variation on a wacky Sandler comedy, but mostly it’s a character study of the antisocial, rage-prone loner Sandler had played in every movie up to that point. (Eventually, his edges softened, and now he basically plays himself, only more bored.)

One thing that has always struck me about the thin plot elements of the film is that it might as well be called, News of the Weird: The Movie. Anderson’s script obsesses over the details of two fairly well-known stories: the autistic genius who finds a loophole in an innocuous promotional gimmick, and the terrifying identity theft associated with phone-sex lines. These stories may have been new to cinema, but I remember everything feeling oddly familiar the first time I saw it.

That’s not a huge problem, though. Through these stories, Anderson constructs the most straightforward plot of his career, but the engine driving that plot hinges on Emily Watson’s character, Lena Leonard. Her presence motivates Barry (Sandler) to break out of his bubble and start fighting back. In a frustratingly on-the-nose hunk of dialogue sold solely because of Sandler, he even states his transformation: “I have so much strength in me you have no idea. I have a love in my life. It makes me stronger than anything you can imagine.”

And it hit me, during the montage set to an endless extended remix of Shelley Duvall squeaking “He Needs Meeeeeeee”—Anderson’s most overt and cloying homage to Robert Altman, whose awful Popeye has become a revisionist classic to hipsters without taste—that the problem of the film lies in its point of view. Ironically, a song ostensibly sung from Lena’s perspective focuses on Barry’s initial shell-cracking, as he follows her to Hawaii. But the story’s central dramatic question shouldn’t be, “Will Barry’s newfound love cause him to man up and fight the Mattress Man?” It should be, “What the fuck is Lena’s deal?”

The flaw in Punch-Drunk Love underscores a basic flaw in Sandler’s films—he always gets the girl, despite his characters’ pathological behavior. The films rarely treat the romantic subplots with any seriousness, which is Anderson’s mistake. He builds Punch-Drunk Love around a relationship inspired by relationships that do not exist in reality as they are portrayed in Adam Sandler movies. Everything Barry says and does in Lena’s presence presents him as a dangerous loner. Believe me, enough women are attracted to dangerous loners to keep me satisfied for the majority of college. But we learn virtually nothing about Lena—in fact, we learn less about Lena than we do about most Sandler romantic interests. She exists solely to prop up Barry, without Anderson (or Watson) ever furnishing a compelling reason for this character to find him attractive. It’s simply taken for granted that she would.

Lena’s a cipher from beginning to end; we don’t even get a clear understanding of how she feels after a pivotal moment—a car accident that lands her in the hospital, followed by her watching Barry beat the living shit out of some Mormons with a crowbar. She just sort of watches, blank-faced and bright-eyed, and seems more upset that he leaves the hospital than that he beat the holy hell out of some guys whose relationship to Barry is unclear. What if he’s the bad guy in this situation? Does Anderson’s use of “He Needs Me” imply that Lena, like Olive Oyl, is thrilled to be codependent to a violent malcontent?

I’d love to see the exact some story told from Lena’s point of view, to understand her and why it matters so much that he needs heeeeerrrrrrr. Does she have a life outside of her interest in Barry?

To me, the thinness of every character (Barry excepted) sort of shocked me. One of the reasons I love Anderson’s other films is his obsessive attention to detail, building lovingly crafted worlds that his well-drawn characters would believably inhabit. Even at his most fanciful—Mag-fucking-nolia—a goofy comic character like Quiz Kid Donnie Smith can exist plausibly in the same world as the achingly real, fumbling relationship between Jim Curring and Claudia Wilson Gator. (I know this is a minority opinion, and believe me, I acknowledge Magnolia is a deeply flawed film—but I love it, anyway.) In Punch-Drunk Love, he forsakes that richness at the expense of the relationship the damn movie’s about.

That’s a lesson from which everyone can benefit. Any relationship between two characters, especially a romantic one, can’t be one-sided. It’s such an easy trap to fall into, especially if your story is based on a real relationship you have (or had) with someone else. You don’t want to be the guy who gets so wrapped up in his own self-proclaimed altruism that all of his scripts come across like misogynist monstronsities, filled with vile men who only keep (one-dimensional) women around to toy and torment, like the sentient computer in “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream.” You don’t want to be Neil LaBute any more than you want to be the guy who thinks he’s written a bubbly story of true love where the true love fails to come across because the relationship feels more like two aliens studying each other than two humans growing increasingly entwined.

It’s not even a good exercise for dramatic purposes. If you’re trying to write your way through a bad relationship (or even a good relationship), it can only help to really try to understand the party who isn’t you. Come on—you’re a writer, for Christ’s sake. When things are going great, how are you not spending every waking moment wondering, “How is (s)he with me?” Who are you, Norman Mailer? Stop being so confident. Then, when things turn bad, why aren’t you saying, “What did I do?” instead of “What a [gender-specific expletive]!” The only way to grow is to explore the reality of the relationship, warts and all, instead of stacking the deck for one party and against the other. It’s as emotionally dishonest as it is dramatically unsatisfying.

Treat your characters like real people, and maybe you’ll realize you and the people in your life are real, too. And they’re not all conspiring against you. Just most of them.

For Wednesday: “End of an Era” (7/24/03)—The editing exercise is (finally) over, and we move on to a group shoot project that turns into an (in retrospect terrible) Lord of the Rings spoof.

For Friday: “Sci-Fi Metaphors & Wasted Potential” (11/26/08)—Reading Andrew Niccol’s surprisingly terrible script, The Cross, gets me thinking about the power of science-fiction metaphors.

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