PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE slurred, stumbled and spewed at the box office in 2002, audiences evaporating after gulled friends reported on yet another example of critics being either punchy or drunk to love this surrealist rom-com dramedy featuring Adam Sandler doing a mawkish Jerry Lewis-take-me-serious-because-under-my-infantilism-I’m-in-pain exercise in smugness written & directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. If you think that run-on sentence was overkill, it’s haiku next to the dawdling collection of endless, pointless scenes with not-believable-for-a-minute cipher-people that make the 95-minute running time feel like watching a chess game from the top row of a stadium. In the fog.
Social anxiety rules the half-life of lonely bachelor ‘Barry Egan’ (Sandler and his assortment of man-child tics); he’s pecked at by his 7 sisters (headed by Mary Lynn Rajskub, about as non-appealing as Juliette Lewis), and plagued by the wallet-cleaning minions of a phone sex operation. He has a chance at salvation when he meets ‘Lena Leonard’ (Emily Watson, bravely struggling to make a character out of vapor). Since it’s a Sandler sandbox, he loses his temper a lot. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Luiz Guzman are on hand: we’re meant to think they’re adorable just for being there.
Everything in this insipid package—the indulgent, attitudinal acting; the ether-concocted characters and the repetitive drivel they do and say; the precocious direction, calculated dislocation presented as clever and somehow meaningful; the isn’t-this-too-twee atonal scoring; the refusal to edit—is supremely irritating. A slew of critics were conned (gee, there’s a first time for everything), but not all: one Paul Arendt bonked it head on with “Punch-Drunk Love is so convinced of its own brilliance that, if it were a person, you’d want to smash its face in.”
While too many reviewers died and went to heaven over it, the bad joke (make that “gag”) perished with the public, taking just $24,700,000, ranking 114th in the rollout for 2002. Against a cost of $25,000,000 (doubled and then some by prints and advertising) that amounts to an acid bath. Score one for the man on the street. A word from the wizened: don’t let the coy agendas and half-baked inclinations of “experts” make up your mind for you.
OK, hold your spit-takes, Adam & Anderson acolytes—I quite liked Sandler’s underrated Spanglish and Anderson’s Boogie Nights, Magnolia, There Will Be Blood and most of Inherent Vice. I draw the line at the excesses of The Master, but even it is better than Punch-Drunk Love.