I didn’t like Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love when it was released in 2002 and don’t think it’s worth extended discussion. But something about it did intrigue me, and I haven’t seen it discussed elsewhere that the movie is really about crazy people, as in Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders crazy.
Anderson famously promised a 90-minute Adam Sandler romantic comedy following Magnolia, and that’s mostly what he delivered. It’s 95 minutes, stars Adam Sandler, and has the conventions of a typical romantic comedy. That it’s not funny or romantic is a minor quibble.
The movie’s not bad, exactly, just anxious and annoying and perfectly framed and puzzling. It does make a certain amount of sense, though, if you look at from my skewed perspective.
I see Punch-Drunk Love as a portrait of mental illness. I think the characters of Sandler and Emily Watson are nuts, and what I like about the movie is that it doesn’t acknowledge it directly. (About the closest it comes is when Sandler is inquiring about a referral.)
Why does he use that retard voice? Because he is, to use the least politically correct term possible, a borderline retard. Why does Watson like him? Because she sees herself in him. (The clincher there is the exchange when they’re in bed together.)
Calling phone-sex lines without any interest in phone sex. Wearing the same suit for four days running. Violent fits of anger. Constant teasing from his family. The fact that he collects Healthy Choice points for frequent-flyer miles and buys pudding by the case. Nobody in the movie ever “notices” or acknowledges these character quirks/flaws because they already know he’s mentally ill.
(Could Sandler’s illness manifest itself in hallucinations, too? If so, the accident at the beginning of the movie might make a little more sense.)
Mental illness might also help explain why his sister matches him with Watson’s character; of course you’ll set up two crazy people. And while Watson is not as overtly nuts as Sandler, her behavior and mannerisms suggest something askew.
Doubters might note that Sandler is a business owner, and Watson apparently holds down a job. Is that incongruous with them being crazy? I’m not sure, but I’ll suspend my disbelief.
There are other signifiers of mental illness. The sound design of Punch-Drunk Love is loud at times, but aside from these blasts, there’s a curious noise throughout. It reminded me of Clean, Shaven, a movie about a paranoid schizophrenic in which the soundtrack was constantly abuzz. Does Sandler hear voices?
And why does the sleazebag character of Philip Seymour Hoffman finally back down from Sandler’s Barry Egan? Simple. Because Egan is fucking crazy. (I’d back off, too, if somebody had come from another state with part of a phone that he’d obviously ripped from its source.)
The more I think about, the more this reading makes sense. To me, anyway. Then again, I’ve always been a little wrong in the head.