Punch Drunk Love (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2002)

Punch Drunk Love
So this is a strange one. I can’t say I’m familiar with Sandler’s work, it never really appealing to me, a few moments of “Little Nicky” really putting me off, but BBC critic Mark Kermode always points to this as proof that he can make good films, so I gave it a try.

It opens as Barry Egan (Sandler), a self-employed salesman sees a car crash and a harmonium abandoned at the end of the lane of his wholesale outlet. Picking up and bringing back the harmonium, which features throughout the film but without any clear reason, Barry returns to his office where he is hectored (mostly by phone) by his sisters about attending a party. Barry is bullied by his sisters, one of whom is trying to set him up with a date, Lena (Emily Watson). Barry, and we, actually see this prospective date early in the film, as she leaves her car outside his work and asks him to look out for it – she’s basically checking him out.

We also see Barry checking an airmiles promotion on a range of ‘healthy choice’ foods, which Barry realises actually mean that the products are worth much less than the offer and, if he is canny, means he can effectively travel for free. He searches out the most cost-effective product to buy – and then buys stacks of the stuff, enough for a flight to Hawaii.

At the party later, his sisters relentlessly pick on Barry until he flips out and destroys a window – something he’s done before. Lonely and frustrated after the party, he calls a phone sex line but not for sexual gratification, just for a friendly voice to talk to. Unfortunately for Barry, this is a scam, the woman he’s talking to taking enough personal and financial information to think they can blackmail him.

Surprisingly, Barry does manage to strike up a connection with Lena but the phone sex blackmailers, led by an oddball Philip Seymour Hoffman, threaten to make life difficult, and even dangerous, for Barry and he has to balance his pursuit of Lena with this threat to his health, livelihood and good name.

This is an enjoyable film, for sure, and certainly not ‘just another rom-com’, though I’m a little concerned that I am starting to notice the unthinking sexism in so many of these movies that isn’t intentional or malicious but is nonetheless distracting. Just as in the last rom-com I watched, Adventureland, the female lead must be ‘rescued’, in a sense, by the male. Here, in addition, the hero is so odd, and occasionally so violent, that although we see he’s a nice guy, it’s hard to believe that she sees enough to realistically make that judgement and you’d have to wonder whether, in real life, she’d actually be safe with him.

Still, it’s not real life and maybe I need to go easier on the rom-coms for a while.

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