Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Punch Drunk Love

As I mentioned before, I just watched the film Punch Drunk Love for the second time. PDL was Paul Thomas Anderson's follow up to Magnolia, one of my top five favorite films of all time, so when I watched this the first time, I was expecting something great, if the same level of transcendence that Magnolia reaches. On the first viewing, what's most striking is how minimalist the film is. After the excess, in terms of style and story scope, of Boogie Nights and Magnolia, PDL sees Anderson pull back and do something much smaller and intimate. There's only two developed characters, and there's almost none of the cutting between different plotlines that was used to such great effect in Magnolia. Instead, this film dives deep into the world of a man who's got some problems.

The first really bold choice that Anderson makes with this film is casting Adam Sandler. Unlike most of my generation, I'm a big Sandler hater, his semi-retarded man-child characters are not funny or entertaining to watch, and along with Chris Farley, his output represents a nadir in terms of films that people seem to genuinely love. But, what Anderson does with this film is take a variation on the traditional Sandler character and play the film as a drama instead of a comedy, or at least a dark comedy instead of a straight ahead comedy.

Though I'm no expert, looking at his other films, you can see Sandler's social ineptitudes played for laughs, and his tendency for manic rage provides some of the biggest comic payoffs. In this film, there's a number of scenes that would have been done as comic setpieces in his other films, notably the smashing of the glass and the bathroom scene, but here, rather than focusing on the act itself, Anderson dwells on the aftermath. The emotional crux of the bathroom scene isn't the fact that he has this rage, we've seen that before, it's observing how this rage has alienated him from society, beautifully done here in the awkward conversation between Barry and the restaurant owner. We sympathize with Barry, but it's completely understandable why this guy would want Barry to get out of his restaurant.

So, the entire film is in some ways designed to challenge the generic conventions of the 'Adam Sandler movie,' and essentially take him out of the cartoon world he usually lives in and show the real world consequences of his characters' actions. This is the Watchmen of Adam Sandler films, deconstructing the generic elements and repositioning them in a real world context.

But, someone with as strong an authorial voice as Anderson would not use a film merely to riff on what's come before, or at least what's come before in one specific genre. Instead, the film becomes an odd fusion of this completely naive, uncorrupted belief in the power of true love to conquer all and the gritty identity theft scheme, which leads to some moments of extreme violence, both physical and verbal. It's the same thing I was talking about in my review of 3 Iron, a fairy tale love story that is occasionally punctuated by the crushing weight of the real world.

There's two primary themes the film touches on. One is finding a way to use one's rage and indignation at past trauma to create a stronger self in the present. This is almost a superhero origin story, as Barry has to learn to use his power to fight evil instead of using it to destroy himself. As the film begins, Barry is totally alone, he has no outlet for his emotions, and any attempts to put on a false smile around his sisters are eventually undermined by their constant dwelling on the ways they used to embarrass him as a child. This drives him to once again break the glass, and his inability to have a real relationship with anyone drives him to the phone sex line.

The phone sex line seems designed to show the way that love has been commodified in modern society. The pure expression of love is gone, but you can buy fake love for $2.99 a minute. But, that's not even the extent of it, this group that claims to offer love actually uses loneliness as a means of stealing peoples' identities. They find people at their greatest moment of weakness and use their own shame as a way to exploit them. Barry's shame is what constrains him through the whole first half of the film. He's ashamed at what he did as a child, he's ashamed he called the phone sex line, he's so embarrased about what he did in the past that he's unable to open himself up and make connections with new people in the present.

The fear that Lena has heard bad things about him from his sister is what prevents him from first going out with her, Only when she opens up to him can he go out with her, this is something that's repeated after their first date, only when she calls him and says that she wanted to kiss him does he have the courage to fully express his emotions.

After his trip to Hawaii, Barry seems imbued with power, and as he says at the end of the film, "I have love and that makes me strong." He fights and defeats four men with no problem when he feels that they have threatened Lena, and when he goes to confront Dean, it is his utter confidence in himself and his power that allows him to win. Dean is someone who's able to push people around by calling them on their mistakes, through sheer force of will, but when Barry matches his strength, he cowers and lets Barry go.

And now free from the shackles of the past, Barry can embrace his love, and things look good for his future. The real emotional love has defeated the commodified shameful love .

From a technical point of view, Anderson again creates a challenging and always intriuging film that pushes a lot of boundaries in regards to what's acceptable in cinema. The most notable visual element is the brilliant use of color. By associating Barry with blue and Lena with red, he's able to play up the emotion of any scene just by well placed color. When Barry stands on a red rug at the hotel, we know that Lena will be along soon. When they're driving and the entire scene is bathed in blue light, we get the feeling that Barry is comfortable, at home. The use of lens flares and lines of light moving across the screen creates some really striking images.

And most importantly, Anderson is a master at framing a scene. The way he shoots is frequently unconventional, but almost always works to achieve the effect intended. There's some great tracking shots here, most notably the one in which Lena and Barry walk out of the restaurant and are followed by the huge truck. I also love the way he pushes the whites, in the opening scenes and in the grocery store. And the integration of music is top notch as well. The use of lush strings calls back to the classical Hollywood era, but it's percussive backing to scenes that's really interesting. Frequently the characters behave as if they are actually hearing the music and move accordingly.

All that said, I do have some issues with the film. I don't really like Barry in the first half of the film, and even in the second half, she still seems not quite grown up, though Lena also seems a bit childlike, so perhaps they belong together. Also, the change in tones works at times, but occasionally it's just too jarring, and prevents the film from achieving the full romantic feeling he was going for. I don't think it reaches the same perfect romantic height as Amelie, and it's that sort of pure feeling of love that I think Anderson was going for here. Also, as I said with Hard Eight, there's just not as much here as in Anderson's other films. I think Anderson's strength lies in showing us a lot of characters interacting, so having one main characters seems a bit restrictive. But that doesn't in any way mean that this isn' an engrossing and successful film.

The casting here is interesting. Only two of the 'Anderson Company Players' appear here, and in what are essentially glorified cameos. Sandler is great here, I think his performance is a complete success. Emily Watson is top notch as well, in a character not that far removed from her role in Breaking the Waves. It was also cool to see Mary Lynn Raskjub, who's great on 24, get some film work. Do I miss Julianne Moore, John C. Reilly, Melora Walters, etc.? Yes, but if Anderson felt the need to write parts for all of them in every one of his films, it would start to hurt the films, as in the case of Christopher Guest's most recent stuff, where there's all kinds of narrative digressions just so they can fit in all their actors.

Coming off Magnolia, nothing was going to be completely satisfying, but PDL works by going in a completely opposite direction and crafting a different, but still interesting story. Anderson's one of my favorite directors and I can't wait to see what he gives us next.


kamagra said...

Actually the plot is very good and the progress of the movie, but the this guy adam sandler is a terrible actor...
Anwyay nice thoughs about the movie congrats.

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Titus77 said...

One of the worst films by a major director I've ever seen. I loved Boogie Nights, and respected Magnolia (it just ran too long). But PDL is a complete mess. No problems with any of the performers, even Sandler. For me, there was a complete lack of genuine emotion between the characters. If that connection isn't there, the work fails. And when a film is nothing but scene after scene of WTF moments, it goes on the all-time worst list.