From the Archives: Punch Drunk Love remains a resonant look at relationships

From the Archives: Punch Drunk Love remains a resonant look at relationships

In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it. 

Without further ado, I present to you: FROM THE ARCHIVES.

Originally posted on Cinema76.

This summer, we are counting down our 25 favorite movies that didn’t connect with audiences on their initial release! View the whole series here.

7. Punch Drunk Love (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, 2016)

  • Budget: $25 million

  • U.S. box office: $17.8 million

Writing about Punch-Drunk Love from the angle of it being a flop is a rather interesting proposal given the fact the Paul Thomas Anderson movies are almost universally not big moneymakers. A couple of entries in his filmography didn’t come out ahead of the budget at the box office, and the handful that did were not explosively huge successes. Granted, the awards love that is synonymous with his name can be given some sort of unquantifiable currency, and his budgets are consistently relatively low, but the term “flop” seems like a pointless one to lob, especially since his entire filmography is universally beloved. Find me someone who outright hates a PTA film and I’ll find you someone who is being a contrarian for the sake of being a contrarian. I once had a friend tell me he hated There Will Be Blood because he “prefers films that have literally any kind of story whatsoever.” I ended the conversation in a state of denial — surely my friend had watched an entirely different film, as there is no other way to explain this reaction. Perhaps he had taken in an Asylum Films version. There Can Be Oil or something like that.

Punch-Drunk Love, Anderson’s departure from the ensemble style of his previous two films, is quite beloved, but it failed to make back its budget by a mere $0.3 million. Originally proposed by the filmmaker as an “art house Adam Sandler comedy,” it’s also Anderson’s shortest narrative feature (his excellent music documentary Junun clocks in at 54 minutes). I believe this is likely why the film didn’t do as well as one would hope. Released in 2002, Punch-Drunk Love coincides with the era where Sandler’s own films began to decline in terms of public favor. The year 2000 gave us the underrated, not very well-liked Little Nicky. The same year as Punch-Drunk Love, Sandler released Mr. Deeds and Eight Crazy Nights, two more movies that, while perfectly entertaining, marked a public acknowledgment of the formula Sandler would soon become famous for exploiting over and over again. Who could blame the general moviegoing audience for dismissing what would likely be another movie about a damaged man finding love and yelling ‘goooooooh’?

At the same time, who could blame the cinephile crowd for scoffing at the notion that the Magnolia guy was now working with Billy Madison?

As is par for the course with PTA films, the reviews were quite positive, with many crediting Adam Sandler’s as yet unseen acting chops. Sure, his Barry Egan wore shades of Sandler’s previous work (see: damaged, loud, violent, and fond of deceptively meek baby talk), but there’s a pathos apparent that his more expressly comic performances never sought to expose. This was the first time (of three) that Sandler’s name started getting some awards buzz. It didn’t pan out for him on that front, but he was now being taken somewhat seriously for the first time ever. Spanglish and Uncut Gems, his next two dalliances with award’s chatter also failed to come to fruition, but few would deny that the man is quite good when he wants to be.


For me, Punch-Drunk Love came at a special time. I was 18 years old, newly embarking on simultaneous adventures: I was kicking off my decade-plus stand-up comedy career and dipping my toes into the dating world for the first time. Growing up, Sandler was my favorite, and as a film-obsessed youngster, it was exciting to see my favorite funny man teaming up with my favorite filmmaker (that latter designation remains today—Anderson is undeniably my pick for a stack of desert island DVDs, many of which would be Criterion Collection). Just weeks before the release of the film, I started courting the first girl I ever “really dated.” We met at a Blockbuster Video and my back now hurts just from saying that sentence. She and her friends were perusing the horror section looking for something scary. I recommended The Evil Dead, a recommendation she took, and before long one of her friends approached me to offer a phone number on her behalf. This was quite stunning to me. Not only did I just get a girl’s number simply by being a movie nerd, but I was apparently so intimidatingly attractive (please, let me have this) that she was too afraid to give me the number herself.

Being a hopeless romantic trained by years and years of misinterpreted—or perhaps socially dated—romance flicks, with a heaping helping of lustily entitled pop-punk music swirling around in my head, I was overwhelmed with the feeling of what I perceived to be young love. When my movie nerd friends and I went to see Punch-Drunk Love, the after-movie plans were to meet up with my new flame and her friends. I remember doing the math on when the movie would end, so that we would waste no time connecting with the other group. I remember panicking as it seemed like the movie was far from ending while our rendezvous time rapidly approached.

“Maybe I read the runtime wrong,” I thought. “It’s certainly easier to believe than Paul Thomas Anderson releasing a film that clocks in at under two hours.”


I was wrong. The film was approaching its ending and I managed to meet up with the object of my affection with plenty of time to spare. This has always stuck with me, because it showed me how little Anderson cares for formula. Punch-Drunk Love has an extremely satisfying and thorough ending, yet it all happens so quickly. While my courtship with this young lady was ultimately rather short lived (a flop, if you will), my race to meet up with her secured my lifelong love affair with PTA. He took an old idea and made it new. He broke the rules of a rom-com using all of the pieces of a rom-com to do it. Just when I thought the movie would be a certain way, he delivered something I never could have expected.

The fact that it was a story about a lonely man with an almost all-female extended family, whose black sheep status often made him feel like he was perceived as a sideshow amidst his loved ones, often reacting to the pressures of life with violence, and who would be happy wearing a blue suit every day for the rest of his life, was very special to me. Make the suit orange and you’ve pretty much got a description of who I felt I was back when I was eighteen. Walking out of that theater and into the arms of my first significant other put me well past cloud nine. I was at at least cloud twelve.

I’ve since grown to realize that weighing my worth in romance and reacting to pressure with violence are no way to live a life. It’s a credit to the film that it was able to speak to me from this angle oh so many years ago without advocating such behaviors. Watching it now, as I approach thirty-six, literally twice the age I was when the film was first released, I was curious to see how it held up in this regard. Would I find that these people are dangerously codependent? Would I be yelling at the screen for one or both of them to run for the hills?

Yes and no. On the one hand, if I knew a real life Barry Egan today, I’d probably not be tripping over myself to set him up on dates with female friends, lest one of his outbursts be damaging (Barry’s new love, Lena Leonard doesn’t get off scot-free either—long before the two are introduced, she can be seen creepily spying on him in the background while he shops for pudding—a touch I’d never noticed in multiple previous viewings). On the other hand, a lot of my own growth came from a feeling of validation. With both Lena and Barry, we see two people who are living a life without validation. Barry is treated like an aberration by his family while Lena’s past relationships, even with the scant details provided, seemed to leave her feeling cold and unloved. The mutual validation that they provide for one another, as well as their dual willingness to look past the faults of the other are indeed a form of love. If love means never having to say you’re sorry, it’s not because you won’t hurt your lover, but rather because they love you for your faults as well.

This is certainly not the case when the couple doesn’t also share respect for one another, but between Barry and Lena I see tons of respect.

In fact, this is what I believe the movie is about. While Anderson has largely declined to speak on the inspiration for this film (while being quite verbose on the thematics of his other work—Magnolia, for example, was his reaction to losing his father), it should be noted that 2002 was a time of significant change in the filmmaker’s life. He had just split with longtime lover Fiona Apple (whose album Extraordinary Machine is rumored to be about this very split). The two allegedly had a tumultuous relationship, one that was fueled by drug abuse and jealousy. Apple claims that Anderson was quite fond of breaking things and throwing chairs during fits of rage, and I can’t help but make a connection to Barry here. Around the same time, Anderson began dating Maya Rudolph. One can assume that this is much healthier relationship, given that they are still together and presumably quite happy. Was Punch-Drunk Love Anderson’s way of saying he needed to grow up? Was it his way of working through a complete redefinition of what a respectful, loving relationship should be? Was it his way of saying to Ms. Rudolph that her being bold and strong enough to love someone with lows as low as his have given him strength to be a better man? One can only assume, but I think it tracks. I also think that I’d like to sit down and listen to the quite excellent Extraordinary Machine album with all of this in mind.

All told, Punch-Drunk Love can be interpreted in a lot of ways (a fun fan theory is that if you follow the color scheme, it’s about Superman finding his cape), which is why it has legs well beyond its status as a flop. It spoke to me as an immature young man, and it spoke to me in newly resonant ways as an adult. But whenever I watch it, I am always blown away to the point of tears. It’s a lovely film, top to bottom, made at at the same high level of craft that PTA never fails to put forth. It’s as thrilling and funny as an “art house Adam Sandler film” should be, and at its heart is a very complicated, human romance that defies convention.

In my experience, unconventional relationships are the ones truly worth having.

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