In 1999, David Phillips discovered a promotion through Healthy Choice food products that enabled him to accumulate 1.25 million frequent-flyer miles. How? He bought $3,000 worth of pudding (12,150 cups).
This true tale inspired writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson (of recent There Will Be Blood fame), to make what is now an overlooked, underappreciated cinematic curiosity called Punch-Drunk Love (2002).
Sherman Oaks, Calif. is home to one disquieting Barry Egan (Adam Sandler). He runs a business, wears a royal blue suit and has a mild-mannered demeanor that masks the violent mania of a man riddled with anxieties.
While in the midst of collecting frequent-flyer miles, Barry begins dating Lena Leonard (Emily Watson), an uncommonly forbearing love interest. But he’s also juggling his seven carping sisters, and a phone-sex extortionist (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who has dispatched goons from Provo, Utah (of all places) to implement "some rough stuff" and steal Barry’s money.
Punch-Drunk Love is one of a kind, just shy of a filmic masterpiece. Adam Sandler is the film’s double-edged sword, however. Though this role isn’t typical of Sandler, his usual, overstated acting prevents him from credibly portraying some of his character’s intense emotions, such as weeping.
But somewhat paradoxically, Sandler seems born to play Barry, especially during the movie’s highlight, when his often-displaced rage is finally administered at the right time and place.
With golden dialogue like, "I’m looking at your face, and I just wanna smash it," or "At that restaurant, I beat up the bathroom. I’m sorry," this movie is nothing short of unforgettable.
Consider the opening scenes, a peculiar, unintended short film within the film: Barry finds a mysterious harmonium (a small reed organ), inexplicably dumped by an acrobatic van. What?
(By the way, last year’s best musical, Once, also begins with a scene that could stand alone as a short film.)
Punch-Drunk Love is like wandering through a weird week of an even weirder guy’s life. Its joys come from seeing its thin story unfold. Indeed, very little happens to the characters in Punch-Drunk Love; the real magic happens to us.