It’s tempting to think of 2007’s There Will Be Blood as the transitional film in Paul Thomas Anderson’s career. Anchored by a lead performance by a heavyweight actor, set a century in the past, ostensibly concerned with Timeless Themes, it’s a pseudo-prestige picture. (More on this next week.) It also appears to mark a tonal shift in Anderson’s work away from the comedic looseness and romantic longing of the early films toward something darker, more surreal, and pricklier, helped along by the aggressiveness of Jonny Greenwood’s seething, punching score.
I would argue that Punch-Drunk Love and not There Will Be Blood is the hinge in Anderson’s filmography, if it even has a hinge: the tone and sensibility of his body of work seems to me remarkably consistent from Boogie Nights on, in spite of its eclectic subject matter. That sensibility might be called hysterical realism. Anderson’s films exist in a reality that is not so much distorted as it is heightened and exaggerated. His hysterical realism is already at work in Boogie Nights and Magnolia, with their coked-up whip pans, extreme close-ups, and trenchant soliloquizing, but it comes into fuller bloom in Punch-Drunk Love, which Ian Judge aptly described as “loopy” in his introduction to last Thursday’s screening at the Somerville Theatre.
Punch-Drunk Love could be described as a paranoid romance with noir elements. In a role that trades on his familiar persona as an endearing but vaguely unstable man-child, Adam Sandler plays Barry Egan, a manufacturer of toilet plungers who suffers from crippling anxiety and barely suppressed rage. (Punch-Drunk Love could just as easily have been called Anger Management, the title of Sandler’s subsequent film.) In the first five or six shots of the film, Barry wanders outside the Expressionistic warehouse where he works, witnesses a car crash, acquires a miniature harmonium left on the curb, and meets Lena (Emily Watson), the woman with whom he will fall in love.
The quick succession of these events and their inexplicability establishes an anxious tone that Anderson will sustain for the entire film. We witness things that do not appear to make sense and that happen too quickly, frustrating the attempt to focus our attention. Jon Brion’s percussive score, which is sometimes as unsettling as Greenwood’s in There Will Be Blood, contributes to this generalized anxiousness. The film is a love story, but it’s about the giddiness and queasiness of love, and about the panicky excitation with which love affairs can begin.
Like Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love is full of things that should not work. Its plot points, which include extortion and intimidation by the shady operators of a phone-sex company and a scheme to rack up frequent flyer miles by purchasing Healthy Choice pudding cups, are patently ridiculous. The resolution of the central conflict between Barry and his extortionist (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is almost laughably anti-climactic. But by that point we have long been caught up in the film’s nervous romantic sweep. Anderson is a filmmaker who has learned how to make his inability to construct good plots into a strength rather than a weakness. The absurd plotting in Punch-Drunk Love ends up feeding into Anderson’s exuberantly messy vision. And it allows him to create truly sublime moments, such as the scene in which Barry flies to Hawaii in pursuit of Lena, set to (of all things) Shelley Duvall’s rendition of “He Needs Me” from Robert Altman’s Popeye. The swooning urgency of the sequence comes crashing over us like a tidal wave. It’s the emotional climax of a movie in which everything happens off the beat.