The Top Ten (or so) Films of the Decade: #6 Punch-drunk Love (Anderson, 2002)
Punch-drunk Love is Paul Thomas Anderson’s smallest film– it isn’t an epic, or a mosaic, it is a romantic-comedy, a miniature masterpiece that barely tops an hour and a half. It is also, arguably, his most sophisticated film: It’s a love story, but also a parable for a particularly modern malaise, a film in which love is posited as the answer to loneliness, anger, and disconnectedness.
It’s also unwaveringly weird– the film involves not just a romance, but a mysterious harmonium and an airline scam involving Healthy Choice pudding. There’s Jon Brion’s score, of course– as odd and beguiling as any heard this decade, and as much a character as the ones played by Adam Sandler and Emily Watson– and, yes, there is Sandler himself, in a role that isn’t just dramatic, but dramatically different from any other he’s taken, before or sense, channeling his SNL mania and comedically short fuse into a troubling performance marked by severe alienation and obsession.
But it all has a purpose, and the film isn’t symbolic so much as richly suggestive. My favorite scene is when Sandler’s Barry Egan calls a phone sex operator, not for arousal, but simply as a final, last-ditch effort at establishing human connection. It’s devastatingly sad, profoundly off, and ultimately, oddly affirming. And then there are the several allusions to Robert Altman’s Popeye— clever homage, but also thematically enriching to the story being told.
But as acute as the alienation is felt here, Punch-drunk Love is ultimately an optimistic film. It’s the only romantic comedy I know of that portrays love in very concrete terms, not as purely a matter of feeling but as something that has real power, and real consequences. It’s a a heartbreaking, funny, and ultimately joyful little movie that is blissfully unlike any other that I’ve seen.