It's an unusual film -- in almost every respect -- which focuses on a single character much more than either Magnolia or even Boogie Nights. The main character is a man (Adam Sandler, who is unexpectedly brilliant in the role) who is physically mature, but emotionally stunted. He is filled with emotions, but does not know how to express them in an adult way. He suffers from uncontrollable fits of rage or tears, but cannot stand up for himself in any useful way. His lack of emotional maturity has been heavily influenced by his 7 overbearing sisters, who watch his every move and take every opportunity to criticize or mock him. They also continually trade information about him, so that his every embarrassing moment is broadcast to the world. They love him deeply, but do not know how to express their own love in a mature way, and so continue to treat him like a child.
At the beginning of the film, Barry (Sandler's character) seems almost autistic. He relates to the world in a strange, sideways fashion that I found difficult to relate to. I spent much of the movie simply trying to figure out what was going on with him, because his emotions were so complicated and unfamiliar to me. He runs his own business, but also gets bizarrely obsessed with obscure Healthy Choice sweepstakes and a harmonium he finds in the street. He passively allows himself to be manipulated, but then resorts to lying and hiding to try to escape things he does not like. The character was like a complex puzzle. I think I would understand him better if I watched the film again, but on first viewing I was largely stumped.
Like Magnolia, it's a film rife with symbolism: the delicate glass pipes Barry sells through his company, the delicate glass windows he breaks in his rages, the harmonium which he so desperately wants to learn to play, and many other things I prefer not to mention because they would be spoilers for the plot.
Unlike either of the Anderson films I've seen previously, Punch Drunk Love is quite visually impressionistic, with emphasis given to the character's focus in many scenes. For example, when he stands talking on a pay phone in a dark, crowded street, at the moment he finally connects with the woman he loves, the pay phone lights up with joyful bright colors. Sometimes things happen in the film (for example, a spectacular car accident in the first few minutes) which are possibly not there at all, but only expressions of the character's emotions.
The writing and directing are, of course, incredible. Paul Thomas Anderson has an amazing talent that pulls me back to his films over and over again. (In fact, Shannon and I were saying, after watching this film, that we would both like to watch Magnolia again, because it has a similar arc of the potential for succumbing to the pain of living, but instead finding a way to overcome it through connection to other people.) The film was surprisingly lovely. Just a shot of the back of Barry's head, the camera looking over his shoulder, was sometimes so beautiful that it made me gasp.
Philip Seymour Hoffman is incredible, as always, in a small villainous role. I don't know if I've seen him as a villain before, so this was quite refreshing and interesting for me. Emily Watson (as Barry's love interest) somehow believably managed to communicate freshness and innocence at the same time as an underlying strength and steadiness. But the big surprise for me was Adam Sandler, because his performance struck me as really surprisingly deep and complex. He made me believe in this character's bizarre emotional world.
The first half hour, I kept wondering if I should just wander away and let Shannon watch the movie by himself. But a couple hours after the film, I was still thinking about it. I'm not surprised it's been nominated for so many awards.
It's not a film for everyone, because it's not like other films. But if you like Magnolia, Rushmore, and Amelie, you might want to give Punch Drunk Love a try.