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Chaos lurks in every corner of this giddily off-kilter foray into romantic comedy by PAUL THOMAS ANDERSON (There Will Be Blood, Boogie Nights). Struggling to cope with his erratic temper, novelty toilet plunger salesman Barry Egan (ADAM SANDLER, demonstrating remarkable versatility in his first dramatic role) spends his days collecting frequent-flyer-mile coupons and dodging the insults of his seven sisters. The promise of a new life emerges when Barry inadvertently attracts the affections of a mysterious woman named Lena (EMILY WATSON), but their budding relationship is threatened when he falls prey to the swindling operator of a phone sex line and her deranged boss (played with maniacal brio by PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN). Fuelled by the careening momentum of a baroque futurist score by JON BRION (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Magnolia), the Cannes-award-winning Punch-Drunk Love channels the spirit of classic Hollywood musicals and the whimsy of Jacques Tati into an idiosyncratic ode to the delirium of new romance. (Taken from the official synopsis.)

There was a time during the relative infancy of the DVD format when I became quite interested, nay obsessed, with Paul Thomas Anderson’s work. Back then the UK DVD market was significantly less well developed than its US counterpart, so I imported a lot of titles, and Boogie Nights, Magnolia and (later) Punch-Drunk Love were among them. Unlike the first two, I caught Punch-Drunk during its original theatrical run and enjoyed it very much, although I must admit that it made for uncomfortable viewing at times. This was (and still is) chiefly because I found that I was able to relate with the character of Barry far more readily than I would have liked. Further DVD viewings over the years served to reinforce my appreciation of the film’s quirky charms and I’ve been eagerly awaiting a Blu-ray release for some time.

As mentioned above, I can relate to Barry in a number of ways. He suffers from debilitating social anxiety, something with which I am also afflicted, although in Barry’s case it is exacerbated by the constant henpecking of his overbearing sisters, who seem to delight in belittling and undermining him. He’s an outsider; a loner who feels more at home with his own company than in the company of others, which again is something that I can empathise with. Like Barry I don’t make friends quickly or easily and I struggle to maintain relationships when I do. On rare occasions when I do genuinely connect with someone I tend to wear my heart on my sleeve, which invariably leads to me getting hurt (often disproportionately), thus beginning the cycle anew.

There’s a scene early on in the film, during which Barry is talking to one of his brothers-in-law after a violent outburst at a family gathering that genuinely upsets me, largely because the dialogue feels like it could have come from my own mouth. ‘I don’t like myself sometimes’, says Barry, followed by the equally heart-wrenching ‘I don’t know if there is anything wrong because I don’t know how other people are’ and ‘Sometimes I cry a lot… for no reason’. It was this scene above all others that sold me on Punch-Drunk Love and Barry in particular, as I often share his feelings of isolation and frustration. Barry’s explosive episode is a symptom of his desire to connect with someone on a deeper level; it’s just that he lacks the social skills required to form such bonds. If only he could meet someone who sees him for who he really is and likes what they see in spite of his flaws; someone who ‘gets’ and needs him as much as he needs them. I really connected with Sandler in that moment, as his performance is touching, sincere, and demonstrates his ability to handle dramatic roles. It’s a pity that he has since returned to middle of the road comedies that fail to showcase his talents.

While Sandler stands out, his is just one of a number of memorable turns. Emily Watson’s enigmatic Lena also appears to have a troubled past and a slightly a skewed outlook on life, which explains her otherwise seemingly baffling interest in Barry. Although Lena is quite thinly drawn Watson manages to do enough with the role to make the off-kilter romance believable. There’s also a brief but memorable cameo for late, great Anderson alumnus Philip Seymour Hoffman, who steals all of the few short scenes in which he appears. 24 star Mary Lynn Rajskub plays a pivotal role as the sister who introduces Barry and Lena, and another semi-frequent Anderson collaborator, Luis Guzman, shows up as Barry’s schlubish employee.

Although ostensibly a ‘comedy’ Punch-Drunk is actually more of an unconventional romantic drama with comedic overtones, albeit very dark ones. The humour derives from an understanding of the complexity of the characters’ mental states and the situations in which they find themselves, rather than a reliance on orthodox gags and slapstick. It’s also challenging on a sensory level, full of metaphors and unusual audio-visual elements used to represent Barry’s various mental states. The harmonium comes violently crashing into Barry’s life in need of care and attention, mirroring his relationship with Lena; blue would appear to represent Barry’s emotional isolation, with red symbolising potential happiness; the cavernous, sterile warehouse overloads the senses with brilliant whites; the discordant, unsettling score becomes dominant during scenes in which Barry struggles to cope with social conventions, but calmer during moments of tranquillity (usually in Lena’s presence). I think it’s fair to say that there’s much more going on in Punch-Dunk than first meets the eye. You either ‘get’ the deeper meanings, or you see it as an Adam Sandler comedy without his trademark man-child shtick. Given that, it’s not hard to understand why it’s such a polarising film.

Video


After waiting for what seems like an eternity for a high-definition release of the film, Criterion comes to the rescue with this restored high-definition transfer supervised by Paul Thomas Anderson himself. The original press materials for the release mentioned that it was a 4K restoration from the interpositive, and indeed several retailers still list it as such, but the claim is curiously absent from Criterion’s own website. Regardless, Punch-Drunk Love is a visually sumptuous film that looks suitably impressive on Blu-ray, certainly enough for those specs to be accurate.

Robert Elswit’s wonderful cinematography is replete with intentional blooming and frequent use of lens flare, complimented by bold colour choices and trippy scene transitions. Barry’s blue suit and Lena’s red dress are the most striking primaries on display (and it’s cute the way that Barry’s tie changes colour to match the last dress Lena wore). When not blown out for effect, whites are crisp and pure, while blacks are suitably inky when required and reveal a healthy amount of shadow detail. There’s a slight red push to the skin tones in a lot of scenes, but I have to assume that this is intentional. The image is exceptionally clean and the encoding certainly looks to be a step up from the first batch of UK Criterion titles that I saw. Anderson’s use of long single takes affords plenty of opportunity to absorb all of this visual splendour. It’s not quite up there with the very best the format has to offer, but it’s not a million miles away.

Audio


Punch-Drunk Love’s unconventional visuals are supported by an equally eccentric DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack. Although not terribly dynamic the track does the basics well, delivering strong, intelligible dialogue throughout, save for the moments when the score is intentionally allowed to eclipses it, taking the viewer on an emotional journey uncoloured by the spoken word (this is a tool employed in many of Anderson’s films). There are a number of key sequences that afford the track opportunities to demonstrate an ability to deliver strong directional effects and solid bass, but these are limited at best. To the contrary, understated ambient effects are the order of business for the majority of the runtime, along with strong representation for Jon Brion’s avant-garde score. Fidelity is impressive and the constituent elements of the track are well-balanced. It’s not an ostentatious affair by any means, but it’s still a very strong aural presentation.

Optional English SDH subtitles are available, although for some inexplicable (and annoying) reason they are not mentioned on the main menu.

Extras


The DVD release of Punch-Drunk Love was disappointing from a supplementary materials point of view, especially considering the wealth of content available for Anderson’s previous three features. The Blu-ray release improves things in this regard, but there’s still no fresh involvement from the director or cast. Instead we get a handful of fairly lengthy interviews, the most interesting of which is with composer Jon Brion. Here’s a complete breakdown of the features.

  • Blossoms & Blood featurette
  • New interview with Jon Brion
  • New piece featuring behind-the-scenes footage of a recording session for the film’s soundtrack
  • New conversation between curators Michael Connor and Lia Gangitano
  • Additional artwork by Jeremy Blake
  • Cannes Film Festival press conference from 2002
  • Interviews at Cannes
  • NBC News interview from 2000 with David Phillips, the ‘pudding guy’
  • Twelve Scopitones
  • Deleted scenes
  • Trailers

Overall


It’s been a number of years since I last watched Punch-Drunk Love and revisiting it on Blu-ray has reaffirmed my admiration for the film. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that it’s one of the best films I’ve seen on the topic of ‘mental illness’, or at least one of the most relatable. Although I’d like to think (hope?) that we’re at different places on the ‘spectrum’ I can’t help but identify with Barry Egan, which is why I rank a romantic drama starring Adam Sandler so highly among Anderson’s accomplished oeuvre. While it serves as a sobering reminder that relationships, particularly romantic ones, are painful, difficult and don’t always work out, it doesn’t mean that you should stop trying. After all, if Barry can find love, even for just a short while, surely there’s hope for us all?

Criterion’s Blu-ray release does a marvellous job of bringing the film’s kaleidoscopic visuals and helter-skelter audio to home video in the sort of quality they deserve. If truth be told I’m still a little disappointed by the extras, which feel largely experimental and lacking in substance (while informative, even the new interviews are a little on the dry side). Don’t let that put you off though; this is still a fantastic presentation of an underrated film and one deserving of both your time and money.

* Note: The images below are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.

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