by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
The film was Punch-Drunk Love, a 2002 movie written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson and starring Adam Sandler, and Charles and I recently picked this up from the remainder table at Vons in hopes this would have the place in Sandler’s oeuvre that the marvelous Stranger than Fiction has in Will Ferrell’s: the one time Sandler actually acted in a great film that aimed for sophisticated humor. Well, it is and it isn’t: it’s a basically good story but a movie that has a lot of longueurs and, like most of Anderson’s films, is better in parts than as a whole. Sandler plays Barry Egan, who was the eighth child in his family and the only male; his seven older sisters have been henpecking him all his life and have kept him in a state of arrested development that’s like he has seven mothers, all telling him what to do at once. His only way out is to smash things, which he has a reputation for doing and which we see him doing several times in the film, and in the rapidity of his fits of anger — they come quickly, he does whatever destructive thing he has to do to get rid of them and then they go — he quite frankly reminded me of me. (I especially winced when he put his fist through the wall of his office, right through the map of the United States on his wall.)
He has a job, of sorts; he runs a novelty toy company, which though it doesn’t have much visible business seems to be doing well enough that he can take long periods off. He also — and this was the basis for the film in the first place — has realized that the Healthy Choice prepared-meal company is offering a frequent-flyer program (remember frequent-flyer programs?) that allows you to amass thousands of free miles at surprisingly low cost. According to a trivia post on imdb.com, Anderson read a story in Time magazine about a man named David Phillips, a civil engineer at the University of California, who amassed 1.25 million frequent-flyer miles by buying $3,000 worth of Healthy Choice pudding. Barry does the same thing, and he stacks the pudding inside his office in a neat pile that makes it look like the pudding is itself some kind of promotion he’s offering to his customers. He also accidentally takes delivery of a harmonium — it’s left outside the door of his unit in the industrial park where his company is headquartered — and he spends the whole movie playing with it, mostly picking out a song that becomes the basis of Jon Brion’s score, which otherwise is mostly electronic burbles and gurgles.
And since Barry is an alienated movie lead, he has all the indicia of movie alienation, including being totally hopeless in his relationships with members of the opposite sex (one of the horrible things his sisters did to him was call him “Gay boy” throughout his childhood — and in the house party they’ve all insisted he go to they’re still calling him “Gay boy” even though there’s no evidence we’re supposed to take that literally). At one particularly depressed moment in his life — just after he’s asked one of his brothers-in-law, a dentist, to recommend a psychiatrist because he breaks down in uncontrollable crying fits fairly often (gee, he could run for Congress as a Republican and ultimately get to be Speaker!) — he calls a phone-sex line just for something to do. He gives up quite a lot of personal information to the service, including his credit-card number, his home phone number (it’s explained to him that he doesn’t get connected immediately; the woman they’re setting him up with will call him back) and even his social security number (“just to verify your credit-card information,” he’s told), a level of intrusiveness he’s momentarily suspicious of but ultimately sloughs off his concerns and gives up all the data he’s asked for (a scene which in the age of the Internet and the degree to which it’s made identity theft incredibly easier “plays” as even scarier than it no doubt did in 2002!).
Then, in what I thought was the movie’s most delightful scene, it turns out that Barry is utterly clueless about what to do on a phone-sex line; the woman he’s talking to runs down all her usual seduction lines and asks him if he’s pulled his pants down, if he’s stroking his cock, if he’s lying naked — he’s actually standing up with a cordless phone in his hand, fully dressed and totally oblivious to his need to participate in the fantasy. Afterwards Barry actually meets a woman the old-fashioned way: Lena Leonard (Emily Watson), who left her car outside Barry’s building while she was looking for a mechanic and even gave Barry the key to hold for her — that’s how much she trusted him even before she knew him! Barry and Lena start dating, sort of, though they’re escorted out of one fancy restaurant after he’s punched out the restroom in one of his rages and they don’t actually consummate their relationship until they take a trip together to Hawai’i (one not covered by his frequent-flyer miles after he finds they take six to eight weeks to redeem!) — and, recalling the many other movies Charles and I had seen in the early 2000’s in which the protagonists got laid and simultaneously someone drowned to death, I joked, “Well, at least no one had to drown for them to have sex.” “Not yet,” said Charles.
The problem is just when his relationship with Lena is burgeoning, he’s also having to fight off retribution from the phone-sex company, which turns out to be based out of a mattress outlet in Utah. They’ve worked out a scam in which the woman posing as the phone-sex operator calls the customer back and says she needs money for her rent; if he refuses, she gets angry and reminds him that they have his credit card information and his home address and phone number; if he destroys his credit card and gets a new one — and Barry, though not exactly one of the brightest bulbs in the human firmament, at least had enough brains to do that — she calls back and said, “You shouldn’t have done that”; and it ends with the man in charge of the mattress store (and the phone-sex scam) telling Barry he’s a “pervert” and he’s going to send his four brothers to L.A. (where Barry lives) to beat him up — which indeed happens — and that he’s secure in his assumption that Barry will never report any of this to the police because he won’t want to admit that he’s a pervert who calls phone-sex lines for his kicks. (Had the people in Utah been depicted as dyed-in-the-wool Mormons who think it’s a righteous thing to do to scam the sinners in L.A. out of money and put it to God’s use, this movie would have been even more pointed in its satire than it is and Anderson could have made the guy running the scam a vivid character in the way he did with Tom Cruise’s motivational speaker in Magnolia.)
Punch-Drunk Love ends more or less happily with Barry and Lena together at least for the nonce, and the weird collection of symbols (the harmonium, the pudding, the colored bars to which the screen frequently dissolves) Anderson loves to stick in his movies seems to be working for them. It’s a weird enough movie that at the beginning one expects another Repo Man (only in that movie there would have been some terrible energy source concealed in the harmonium; in Punch-Drunk Love the harmonium is just a harmonium, and there’s a charming little scene with Adam Sandler patching its bellows with duct tape), and it actually goes along softer but not necessarily kinder or gentler lines. It’s a weirdly engaging movie but also a somewhat frustrating one in that we really don’t get that close to Barry or find out What Makes Barry Run — Anderson is yet another modern director who’s almost terminally detached from his characters and wants us to be, too, and I couldn’t help thinking what the young Woody Allen could have done with this concept as both director and star. Still, it’s a good movie and it’s nice to know that Adam Sandler can do films that aren’t totally, mind-numbingly stupid — even though it’s hardly on the level of Will Ferrell’s masterpiece (and I have enough of an imp of the perverse to like writing a sentence combining “Will Ferrell” and “masterpiece”), Stranger Than Fiction.