30 Movies in 30 Days: Punch-Drunk Love

Had I seen it before: Nope.

Year: 2002

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

Writer: Paul Thomas Anderson

Where you can stream it now: HBO

What IMDb says: A psychologically troubled novelty supplier is nudged towards a romance with an English woman, all the while being extorted by a phone-sex line run by a crooked mattress salesman, and purchasing stunning amounts of pudding.

Why I picked it: I’ve been trying to explore more films by acclaimed auteurs lately, and Punch-Drunk Love had been on my list for a while anyway. Also it’s only 95 minutes. (I promise I’ll make time for longer movies later this week, but right now I’m on a tight deadline to finish Mad Men before it leave Netflix so…)

What I liked: Punch-Drunk Love is the kind of movie that only happens when a single visionary is given a lot of control over the final product, and I love that about it. The directing serves the writing in a way I don’t ever see unless they’re done by the same person. There’s a lot of unorthodox shooting/editing choices that were disorienting, but it was all okay because our protagonist seems disoriented too. I love that I was never able to 100% make sense of this film’s world or where the story was going next. Usually I’d complain about that sort of thing, but the mood was appropriate and ultimately helped me empathize with Barry more than I might have with a more by-the-books directing approach.

Barry is also as interesting as he needs to be to make a film like this work. While I wouldn’t really call him likable and some might even argue that he’s not even all that sympathetic, I was still always waiting to see what he would do next. He simply processes the world in a way other people don’t and I want to learn more about him. The film doesn’t really ask us to endorse some of his more questionable behavior as is typically the case with male leads in romantic works. It simply wants to show us that behavior because it’s out of the ordinary, and tries to portray Barry through an understanding lens.

I also love how they set up conflicts outside of the boy-likes-girl aspect of the story. We spend most of this movie waiting for the other shoe to drop. This meant that even though I wasn’t always as invested in Barry and Lena’s love story as the film wanted me to be, I never felt like the film just didn’t have any stakes. Wondering how Barry’s battle with phone-sex extortion would end was enough to carry this story when the love affair wasn’t.

What I didn’t like: We don’t really learn enough about Lena to understand why she likes Barry so much, and this really hindered my ability to get super invested in their relationship. The last thing I want to do here is imply that someone with atypical cognitive function just isn’t worthy of love, but it also completely breaks my suspension of disbelief when a beautiful woman instantly falls for a man who isn’t particularly smart, good-looking, rich, or charismatic. I’ll reiterate that the disorienting nature of the film is part of what makes it interesting, but this was the one way in which the story is poorly served by its desire to stray from convention.

I would’ve loved if we could’ve gotten more scenes of Barry and Lena getting to know each other. Maybe we could’ve learned more about the kinds of shitty guys Lena used to date that helped her see how a guy like Barry, who has a great heart but isn’t. Maybe there’s a scene of her talking to Barry’s sister and asking for the set-up. But I don’t think there’s particularly great chemistry between the two actors, and the sort of love-at-first-sight narrative just doesn’t work as well here as it might have in a more stereotypical romance.

One could argue that the film just isn’t about Lena’s feelings for Barry, but only Barry’s feelings for Lena. That’s a logical enough take. But if I don’t believe that there’s genuine feelings on both sides, Lena actually comes off as more a villain, someone who’s unfairly taking advantage of Barry. And since we spend the whole story looking at her through Barry’s eyes, that prospect is soul crushing and I don’t want to believe it.

Will I watch it again: I’m not sure I will, but I’m certainly glad I saw it at least once.

Who would enjoy it: This is one best suited for people who watch a lot of films and are into the artsier side of it. Its originality is its biggest selling point, but if you just want a romcom or Nicholas Sparks movie that will make you feel all the things those movies make you feel, there’s other things.

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