Style over substance is an all-too-common sin, and one that Paul Thomas Anderson succumbs to without much fight in Punch-Drunk Love (2002). The film follows lonely Barry Egan (Adam Sandler) in his search for love and his exploitation of a promotion that will earn him an abundance of frequent flyer miles (real-life inspiration: David Phillips). The search for love is the main focus, as Egan finds himself egged-on by one of his seven abusive sisters to date her friend Lena (Emily Watson) and simultaneously running from a group trying to extort and harm him after he calls a phone-sex service.
If all of that sounds bizarre, that’s because it is meant to be. Anderson and Sandler desperately milk every last laugh that such absurdity provides, even when it means condescending to the audience. Too often, it does, and the movie does not let us breathe before we acknowledge just how horrible Egan’s sisters are and how unfortunate Egan’s tendencies toward fits of rage are…at first. Unfortunately, Mary Lynn Rajskub is a caricature as the sister Elizabeth, and Watson and Sandler are completely devoid or chemistry, and Sandler in particular makes it hard to believe that he is in love, so despite how hard the dialogue tries to make us react, it sometimes seems like the actors don’t want us to. The sole worthy performance, by Phillip Seymour Hoffman as the man behind the phone-sex con, is laugh-out-loud funny in his two short scenes at the end. Sandler, while amusing in both his passivity and his bouts of anger, keeps his character firmly on the surface.
Anderson has an attachment to wide shots and long takes, conveying the distance of a man who probably sees nothing of value in his surroundings, and providing a small level of admiration for a picture that is too underwritten to ever connect with. Anderson, like Sandler, is afraid to wear his heart on his sleeve (or for that matter, anywhere visible) and he instead opts for black humor, repeatedly punishing characters for being in unfortunate situations, portraying them as foolish and inciting the audience to laugh at their foolishness. Anderson’s punishing of characters for trivial deeds, such as the phone-sex that drives much of the plot, comes without the insight (or much of the humor) that the Coen Brothers bring to similar actions. Punch-Drunk Love’s best laughs come with smart, recursive dialogue, not a character’s stupid decision, but the latter is far more common than the former. Worse, the stupid decisions are almost entirely inconsequential to the story, so instead of getting to know Egan, whose back-story as a busy worker with seven terrible sisters could be compelling, we find ourselves more off-put than sympathetic, and the little sympathy we have is mostly derived from how unlikable all the other characters are.
The protagonist here is paper-thin; nothing lets us believe that Egan has been empowered enough—physically or mentally—to ward off those extorting him. For a director known for compelling characters, his tendency to make characters play second fiddle to plot here is shocking and, until the end, occasionally revolting. There are a few of laughs to be had, and Anderson’s direction is strong enough to support a script far better than the one he wrote, which makes Punch-Drunk Love a compelling failure, but a failure nonetheless.