I Don't Like Myself Sometimes: Paul Thomas Anderson's Punch-Drunk Love
“I have a love in my life. It makes me stronger than you can imagine.”
Punch-Drunk Love, Paul Thomas Anderson’s fourth feature film after Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, and Magnolia, is a musical, a dark comedy, a tragedy, a love story, but, most of all, it is definitively a Paul Thomas Anderson film.
Barry Egan (Adam Sandler in, perhaps, his finest role) is a lonely, depressed, and anxious small business owner. He’s mistreated by his overbearing sisters—as the only brother among eight siblings—and so he lives in solitude, shuttering himself away from a world that has always seemed to abuse him. When he does face this abuse, Egan often doesn’t know how exactly to handle it. He pretends to build up a thick skin, sloughing off insult after insult until he bursts in violent outbursts of emotion. He smashes windows and punches through dry wall. And, when his sister invites him to meet her co-worker, Lena Leonard (Emily Watson), Barry is initially apprehensive. When he finally does meet her and they click, however, Barry becomes embroiled in a credit card scam from a phone sex line he called in an act of loneliness and a need for intimacy. Everything only escalates from there.
Often, Paul Thomas Anderson, like the great Stanley Kubrick, is criticized for creating characters that are more puzzle pieces to be cracked than individual, empathetic human beings. I have never thought that this critique was totally fair for either director—both Anderson and Kubrick may create characters who are highly representational, but they also create characters that you need to get to know through repeat viewings, and this can often create the illusion of shallowness on first viewing.
Out of all of Anderson’s characters, Barry Egan defies this characterization perhaps most dramatically, even on a first viewing. He, in many ways, wears his heart on his sleeve. And, though he is guarded, initially refusing his sisters’ pressure to meet Lena Leonard, the hesitation comes from a clear vulnerability—a worry that the set up is a ploy to jab at Barry’s emotional weak spots. During a date with Lena, when Barry stumbles over his words to tell her how he feels, we understand because of Sandler and Anderson’s spectacular characterization of Barry that this doesn’t originate from a social awkwardness, but rather from Barry’s understandable desire to not be hurt. Similarly, Barry’s idiosyncrasies—like a bizarre plan to purchase pudding in an attempt to game a frequent-flyer miles promotion—help not only to add flavoring to what is already a profoundly strange movie, they add to the understanding of Barry as a person. This is a man who hopes to get away from his inferiority and insecurities, his emotionally abusive family and his mundane job. When we see him smash a window at a particularly awkward dinner party at home, we understand, again, that this is not a random outburst of violent emotion, but rather a response to years of abuse and frustration. And, when his sisters chastise him, calling him “a retard” for finally finding an outlet to express these emotions—albeit in a profoundly unhealthy way—we understand that this cycle of pent-up emotion and abuse is only going to restart its cycle yet again.
What Paul Thomas Anderson does with Punch-Drunk Love is create a character study that isn’t about dissecting a bloodthirsty oilman, a hippy embroiled in a deep world of crime, or a lost soldier adrift in existential anger. It isn’t about picking apart a person who seems larger than life or who is utterly fascinating because of his grandiosity. Instead, Anderson finds a person whose problems are mundane, with a tinge of the fantastic. And, he slowly peels back the armor, layer by layer. Barry Egan, unlike Freddie Quell, Doc Sportello, or Daniel Plainview, is not a character meant to be cracked or deciphered. He’s just a regular guy trying to find happiness and hope in a world that seems so intent on crushing that very happiness and those very hopes. All his hopes and desires and anxieties and frustrations are right in front of us. The problem, just as it is in real life, is taking the time to look just past our nose and see what’s in front of us.