There are a lot of things going on in Punch-Drunk Love, but the one thing for which this particular film is going to be remembered is a stunning performance turned in by Adam Sandler, whose career has been defined by safe comedies. Sandler is anything but safe here, showing a range we could have only dreamed he possessed, and taking things to a far darker place than we could imagine. There’s more to look for in Punch-Drunk Love, but that’s likely the most memorable part.
Sandler plays Barry Egan, a socially awkward — and perhaps psychologically imbalanced — man who runs a company that sells toilet plungers. He’s working on a scheme which involves buying a lot of pudding cups and using a promotion to get a bunch of frequent flyer miles — despite not having any desire to travel — and he spends his time being emotionally abused by his seven sisters. In an early scene, he witnesses a car crash and takes a “tiny piano” — which we later learn is a harmonium — that is dropped off randomly on the street. Why? Who knows?
Later on, he winds up being set up by one of his sisters with Lena (Emily Watson), after calling a phone-sex line which tries to extort money from him. Barry also has a slight problem with incredibly violent outbursts. All of these elements compete for our time, which is valuable since Punch-Drunk Love runs for just over 90 minutes. Like I said, there’s a lot going on. Lots of it isn’t pleasant, but it’s filtered in such a way that it’s funny regardless. Is watching Barry beat up a bathroom kind of sad? Sure, but the way it’s presented, and the conversation that directly follows, makes it hilarious.
A lot of Punch-Drunk Love is like that. It’s a dark romantic comedy. It throws a bunch of insanity at the screen, hopes that a lot of it will stick, and then makes fun of what just happened. This is a weird little movie, and it’ll remind you of that from start to finish. If you’re someone who likes conventional, non-threatening rom-coms, Punch-Drunk Love isn’t going to be the film for you.
The people is will be for are those who want to see Adam Sandler try something different. He begins the film looking as if he’s going to be a typical goofball, and then he gets to go in a completely different direction, even if it’s just in small bursts. In one scene, he’ll be on a romantic dinner, while in the next he’ll have a fight scene with a bunch of people who are in the film to steal his money. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the man who runs the extortion business, which masquerades as a furniture store.
A lot of these elements feel light, almost as if a longer cut of Punch-Drunk Love existed but was trimmed down to what we got. They’re handled fine but there’s so much going on and so much of it feels weightless. Perhaps that’s because this is, essentially, a rom-com — albeit a dark one. That genre rarely contains a whole lot of weight or depth to the things that happen; they just exist. This one is that mixed in with psychological imbalance and gangsters and the exploitation of marketing loopholes.
Adam Sandler is a revelation in the role of Barry Egan, a man constantly on the verge of a complete mental breakdown. The mix of genuine sincerity and the surprisingly dark places Sandler goes makes it a compelling performance from start to finish. Emily Watson gets to have a few fun scenes, almost all of them shared with Sandler, but our focus remains on him. Philip Seymour Hoffman is the only actor in the movie who can take our attention away from Sandler — although he only gets about three scene, only one of which is shared with our protagonist.
Punch-Drunk Love is such a compelling movie thanks to its constant stream of random elements reigning down upon it, a fantastic and surprising performance by Adam Sandler, and a great deal of comedic elements. You almost ignore that most of its elements are underdeveloped in comparison to how they should, although since it’s essentially just a dark version of a romantic comedy, this makes sense. Punch-Drunk Love is a movie that is a good deal of fun from start to finish.