Friday, July 30, 2010

Altered Ego

My last two posts were devoted to dissing Paul Thomas Anderson's early ensemble entries Boogie Nights and Magnolia. Thankfully, I ease up when it comes to his next film. Punch Drunk Love, his decidedly odd Adam Sandler vehicle, was easily his best work to date, and it remains a bizarrely engaging work, quite unlike anything else I've ever seen.

There are three standard critical lines on Punch Drunk Love, two of which I agree with.

One: Love is an aesthetic triumph, built around sound--Jon Brion's ecstatically jagged score and those hypnotic harmonium passages. The lurching camera follows the same wild angles, underscoring the film's frantic nervousness, a rootless, self-possessed anxiety. Even more than Sandler's Barry Egan, Punch Drunk Love itself has a trigger temper, scurrying between dragging banalities, wordless fury, and brief, sweet releases. It's the most pleasurable of itches.

Two: Love is an excavation and exploration of "Adam Sandler," the screen persona. His mugging comedy, removed from popcorn context, flips to lurching savagery and a childishness more violent than funny. It's not a Bill Murray-style reinvention--in retrospect, you can see the seeds planted for Sandler's revelatory performance in his previous daffy work, and his full flowering as curated by PTA is a marvel to behold.

Three: Love is a romance. A jarring, blistering take on romance, but a romance nonetheless.

I beg to differ with that last one, even though it seems the most basic of the three, the film's genre footing. I understand, it's right there in the name, and a basic rom-com arc regularly intrudes on the film's spastic id, but I don't think it can be most accurately labeled a love story. If it is, it's not an especially good one--Emily Watson is idiosyncratic and charming, but her peculiar connection to this madman doesn't exactly feel like a romance, though it looks like one.

My theory? Punch Drunk Love is a superhero movie, reduced to its most delirious and unsettling form.

Foremost among the film's many running gags is Barry's powder-blue suit, which he consistently fails to explain. The suit is its own explanation, Barry's costume, the source of his totemic individuality as marked out for the audience as much as his fellow characters. Brion's score is Barry's internal theme song, driving him not to save the city but to charge madly around his warehouse, his echoing fortress of reluctant solitude. There, he seethes with odd, quixotic obsessions (plungers and pudding), both laughable and strangely compelling from the outside. There's a waifish, adoring damsel (Watson) and a distant femme fatale (an exploitative phone-sex operator), but neither drives Barry's redemption forward. What does is a mysterious accident, which inexplicably grants him an external representation of his inner otherworldliness: a harmonium, on which he composes dissonant, resonant drones. Sounds like an origin myth to me.

In romantic terms, Barry's seven sisters are a lazy plot device, propping up the same sketched misogyny that haunted Magnolia. In a superhero tale, those seven (a fantastic number!) are something decidely more allegorical: the square society Barry can't jive with. Barry's war was cast by some observers as a loner fighting off an oppressive society that refuses to recognize his "sensitivity." Bull. He's not sensitive, he's obsessive, and that society isn't exactly oppressive--that's PTA's real twist on the superhero legacy. The world outside Barry's factory is shabby, selfish, and faintly absurd. The battle lines are nothing quantifiable. Instead, it's a question of perspective: the aesthetic comes back into play, tying us closely to Barry's feverish viewpoint while keeping his outbursts (e.g., smashing a sliding glass door) unpredictable and inexplicable. He's not cast as crazy, a locus of pity for a sane world and a sober film. He's the subject, not an object.

Sandler, of course, is perfect for this role. His crazed passion is worlds beyond the quirkily depressive antics of Tobey Maguire's Peter Parker. On the one hand, he's more than a little pathetic, caught in the crossfire of a phone-sex scam and his controlling family, collecting airline miles with no independent desire to go anywhere. On the other, his madness goes hand in hand with devotion, fearlessness, and an astonishing ability to kick ass when called upon to do so. His nemesis may just be "Mattress Man" (an irreplacable Philip Seymour Hoffman, finally given his due by PTA), but Barry still triumphs over him, and tied as we are to our hero's perspective, the triumph is oddly moving rather than ironic. Consider all of Sandler's previous on-screen incarnations his hammed-up Clark Kent. This is his true alien form, unleashed to wander through appropriately abstracted sets: supermarkets and tropical islands take on the weighty but transparent qualities of the best fantasy.

In hindsight, of course, Punch Drunk Love is a transitional work, excising the frustrated ambitions of PTA's late-90s work on the way to the transcendent unity of direction and performance in There Will Be Blood. As such, Love feels hermetic, a carefully controlled experiment in which nothing so messy as love is allowed to survive. Still, it's a fascinating, successful experiment, one of the genuinely unique films of the Aughts--a dead-end trail, but one I'm glad PTA blazed.

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