‘Punch-Drunk Love’: The Hilarity of Anxiety and Blossoming Love in Paul Thomas Anderson’s ‘art house Adam Sandler film’


By Adam Buffery

According to Paul Thomas Anderson, the self-taught San Fernando valley wiz-kid now entering the second half of his storied career, love is what happens when you’re busy buying pudding. The general audience has often missed the tender hum of humor coursing through many of Anderson’s feature films, as it seems when moviegoers are most turned-off by or non-responsive to his movies they are, in some ways, missing the joke. He has spoken about most of his movies as if they could secretly be comedies; inside jokes between him and his collaborators and friends. His singular characters give him a chance to put a spotlight on the peculiarities and randomness of personality, and while his movies jump between different eras and subject matter, the not-so-phantom thread that ties them all together is Anderson’s unflinching humanist gaze, with a wink. You can picture Paul sniggling in the corner to himself as he watches some of his favorite actors and long-time friends bring to life his eccentric, vibrant, sometimes strange characters. Kicking himself that, after fantasizing about it since he was a boy with celluloid dreams, he’s actually making movies with Daniel-Day Lewis, Tom Cruise, Julianne Moore, Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Philip Baker Hall, Leslie Manville, John C. Reilly, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Emily Watson, and Adam Sandler. Just happy to be doing what he loves, hoping it lands with others.

Anderson isn’t a man who takes things too seriously, a question that has been belabored while making his interview rounds for his most recent movie Phantom Thread, as he’s asked how much he identifies with the solemn, workaholic Reynolds Woodcock. He gives the impression that, sure, he has his Woodcockian moments, but since his family now uses the name “Woodcock” to describe someone being Scrooge-like or grumpy, his natural sympathies clearly lie on the other side of grumpiness, where they always have. The side that can’t get enough of The Wedding Singer, Big Daddy, or Happy Gilmore. The side that, during an interview with Rolling Stone on the heels of making Magnolia, obsessively praised an actor most had discarded as being the prince of dumb, bro-y humor: “‘Are you aware of Adam Sandler?’ he’ll ask, intensely serious, his tone practically quivering with the joy of discovery. ‘I mean, are you truly fucking aware? He is headed for a level of genius in creation and acting that I just cannot wait to see keep going.’” It is this same side of Anderson that came upon a story in a newspaper of a man acquiring over 1 million flyer miles by purchasing just over $3,000 worth of pudding and felt a burning urge to meet that guy and turn his story into a movie. If you don’t find Punch-Drunk Love funny, maybe you’re being somewhat of a Woodcock yourself, failing to respond to the cheeky empathy that draws Anderson to make movies about these unusual, tormented souls. Maybe Anderson’s character studies are too subtle or bizarre to ever earn him Marvel money, or, more to the point, maybe people don’t find people as cinematic or funny as Anderson does. Nevertheless, the matchless blend of laughter and compassion and the genius casting of Sandler in his first “serious” role have made PTA’s fourth feature film a cherished favorite among both his and Sandler’s fans.

Punch-Drunk Love earned Adam Sandler his first and only Golden Globe nomination, for best actor in a musical or comedy, and won Anderson a Best Director award at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival, where it was nominated for the coveted Golden Palm. Producer Joanne Sellar, who has produced all seven of Anderson’s feature films since Boogie Nights, said that “After Magnolia, which was a huge, dark, challenging movie, I think Paul wanted to make something that was contained, uplifting and sweet.”

The power of Punch-Drunk Love may be in its ability to bridge two distinct worlds together. Anderson has described the movie as an “art house Adam Sandler film,” and it is this marriage of avant-garde cinema and Adam Sandler’s flair for the moronic that make it such a special moment in 21st century American cinema. Roger Ebert interviewed Anderson at the 2002 Toronto Film Festival and noted, in a piece he wrote for the Chicago Sun-Times, that Punch-Drunk Love was the first Adam Sandler movie he liked. Upon hearing the good news, Sandler replied “I will have to tell my parents, so they can watch your show again,” as the Sandler clan was very much aware that Ebert had negatively reviewed each of his previous movies. Punch-Drunk Love surely validated Sandler as an actor capable of more, full of a deeper reservoir than his previous movies let on. Or, perhaps we just weren’t paying attention. Maybe we watched his previous comedies with somewhat of a Woodcockian mind; judgmental, constricting, and rigid. Anderson aimed to make a movie for everyone to see in Sandler what he sees: a jovial, silly, nothing-but-good-natured lug in oversized t-shirts and shorts capable of real on-screen emotion. Anderson told Ebert, in the same interview, that after “coming out of making Magnolia and living with that for a while, I went, ‘God, I would really like to take a left turn and make myself happy, get rid of all this cancer and crying.’”


So, Paul gave himself the gear-shifting task of making a 90-minute comedy starring Adam Sandler. Sandler, as Barry Egan, doesn’t move normally and he mumbles in completely incomplete sentences, fighting through fits of emotions as people attack him in words and expectations. He works at a lowly warehouse as a plunger salesman, where he goes from one asinine phone call to the next. He has seven sisters, who delight in reminding him how they used to call him “gay boy,” and, when Barry smashes one of his sister’s windows at his own birthday party, they erupt in a hyena-like chorus of “you retard, Barry!” Barry is certainly a special berry. He is a paranoid outsider who couldn’t even tell you where the inside was if you asked him, all he knows is he isn’t in it. Barry is less looking for things as he is bombarded by things, dominated by people and a reality that he doesn’t gel with, to the point of sensory overload and over-feeling. Barry is a man swimming against the current heading nowhere, with no clear path or direction, no stability or certainty. The only thing he is sure of is he must escape, wherever he is, whoever he is, and whatever his career is, it’s not working.

Judd Apatow, who wrote and directed the 2009 “serious” Adam Sandler movie Funny People, reveres Punch-Drunk Love as one of his all-time favorite movies. As movies continue moving more toward the block-busting, movies-as-rollercoaster-rides, Anderson remains happily devoted to his particular blend of people-centric cinema. His genius lies in turning character into cinematic marvel, and with Punch-Drunk Love, Anderson created a whole new genre of Adam Sandler movies. Not bad for a $25 million movie that almost broke even making $24.6 at the box office.

Where almost all of Quentin Tarantino’s characters are blessed with the unifying gift of gab, with a notable exception of De Niro in Jackie Brown, Anderson’s characters speak more individually, with unique syntaxes, cadences, and rhythms. Barry Egan, just like Doc Sportello in Inherent Vice and Freddy Quil in The Master, isn’t a talker. Where Barry generates his laughs is in his frustrated physicality reminiscent of Jacque Tati, and his behavior, and the very fact that he has difficulties with communication. Barry doesn’t have the words to say anything funny, and he’d never be cast in a Tarantino picture because he’s a mumbler. He isn’t in control of his moods, his rhythm, or his words, He’s a kind of a lost man-child going from tantrum to tantrum, smacked back and forth like a ping-pong ball between different people and events.


Sandler waddles more than walks, perhaps as he’s always done, this time in a sort of Charlie Chaplin way with a cup of coffee seemingly stuck to his hand. This odd man in the blue suit, the blue suit being inspired by Jean-Paul Belmondo’s character in Godard’s Pierrot le Fou, is a businessman, and businessmen drink coffee. You can sometimes see the anxiety and frustration course through his body as Barry squirms in agony trying to navigate and adapt to a world he doesn’t understand. If you were to ask a room of kids what’s “wrong” with the twitchy, restless-body-syndromed Barry, they’d yell that he has to go to the bathroom. In a 2002 interview with Variety, Anderson said of Barry “I think he’s a bit confused, he’s a bit angry, and a lot of it has to do with how he grew up. It’s about that feeling when you can’t say something, and you just start to throw punches.”

At one point during a DGA talk dedicated to the career of Francis Ford Coppola featuring Anderson, Catherine Hedwick, and David O Russell, Coppola turns the spotlight on Paul and asks if he knew what he was doing when he made Punch-Drunk Love, stating that it’s one of his favorites of Paul’s movies. Paul, in his typical nervous shuffle, erupts into laughter and squirms out his answer that no, he was just “tryin’ to get through every day.” In the same talk, Anderson muses that he thought he made a hit: “I think I made a film that every single person is gonna see and is gonna make like 500 billion dollars, you know, I finally did it. And no one saw it, and some people really like it but…” In a similar fashion, in 1964 Jean-Luc Godard described his intentions for making Bande a part as wanting to make a movie out of a “sure-fire story which will sell a lot of tickets.” Bande à part, like Punch-Drunk Love, didn’t sell many tickets.

Emily Watson, as Lena, speaks so well with her love-locked eyes. She says, in an interview at the Cannes film festival with Anderson, Sandler, and Hoffman, that Paul’s main request or direction was that she do “nothing,” which took some getting used to. Lena watches Barry as he fumbles over words and trips on emotions in ways that resemble Tati or Inspector Clouseau; the endearing fool who can’t quite get in society’s stride. Lena and Barry are locked into an entirely different orbit from other people, and seem to feel each other’s vibrations, communicating through their rocky anxiety-fueled rhythms and undeniable synergy. When they’re together the medley of dancing colors in the animations, made by the artist Jeremy Blake, seem to harmonize and calm, and the lens flares of love, by Anderson’s long-time cinematographer Robert Elswit, bless the couple with a warm, shiny kiss from the sun. Rarely are emotions, and their transformations, so explicitly shown. For Anderson, quite literally in Punch-Drunk Love, emotions are special effects.


The definition of “punch-drunk” is, in a word, confusion. It’s a term commonly used to describe boxers rendered confused and unable to talk or move normally as a result of too many blows to the head. The title is undoubtedly also a nod to Radiohead’s song “Punchdrunk Lovesick Singalong,” released in 1995. Of course, this is only the first of Anderson’s many connections to Radiohead as Jonny Greenwood, the lead guitarist and best hairdo wearer of the band from Oxford, has become somewhat of a John Williams to his Steven Spielberg. Jonny would work with PTA on his next two features after Punch-Drunk Love, the incomparable American epic There Will Be Blood and the crooked Scientology buddy-flick The Master, and most recently Phantom Thread, which earned him his first Academy Award nomination for Best Score. Anderson has also shot several dreamy music videos for Radiohead.

The harmonium in Punch-Drunk Love can be seen as Anderson’s version of Kubrick’s monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey, a seemingly random object glowing in big fat vibes of mystery, making Barry somewhat of a head-scratching-monkey. When he first encounters the harmonium, after a truck drops it by the curb in front of his work, Barry stares at it in a two-shot showdown. He then picks it up and runs it inside as if it were seconds away from exploding, dropping his coffee mug as he see-saws and sways his way back to work. Is the landing of the harmonium a symbol of the love about to walk into his life, is it a symbol of the impending phone-sex scandal, is it a beacon of change, or is it nothing at all, a gift delivered to the wrong address, picked up by a paranoid, blue-suit-wearing pudding-buyer? Whatever the harmonium initially was, it definitely becomes a symbol for something for Barry. Probably something he doesn’t understand, but feels, just like everything else.

The score by Jon Brion, who previously scored Hard Eight and Magnolia for Paul, blossoms the movie into a love story with jagged edges. The music perfectly crescendos and climaxes with the rise and fall of Barry’s anxiety, overwhelming emotions, and paranoia throughout, and the score is so tightly entwined with the rhythm of Barry and Lena’s emotions and interactions, at times it feels like they can hear the music. To call Punch-Drunk Love a musical wouldn’t be too far off, it’s just that no one ever sings. One of the only songs with vocals is Shelley Duvall’s “He Needs Me” that Anderson ripped from Robert Altman’s Popeye, a nod to one of his favorite and most inspirational filmmakers. Brion’s score verges on the avant-garde, as a kaleidoscope of electronic sounds form a maddening, dizzying sonic representation of Barry’s confusion. The more unconventional pieces sound like computers trying to talk to each other, with a driving mixture of clicks and beeps and swooshes that surely echo the topsy-turvy reality that is Barry’s life. Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s character is the loudest character in the movie, but even he doesn’t sing, he screams. Hoffman’s most underrated skill may have been his screaming ability, and the tirade of bleeped this-and-that he throws at Barry over the phone, waving his hands around like a lunatic because his phone-sex con isn’t going so hot, may be his most memorable scream. Hoffman goes from a desperate and humiliating Dirk Diggler fanboy in Boogie Nights, to a good-hearted caretaker in Magnolia, back to being a prick more like his role in Hard Eight as the tool who beats Sydney at a game of craps.


Anderson relishes movies that change gears, like Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild; capable of shifting from one mood to another with the flip of a switch, and Barry’s volatility allows Punch-Drunk Love to operate on a level where anything can happen, as fear, anger, and sadness are all a mere poke away. Comedy, melodrama, romance, crime, and family issues all tip-toeing around each other, swirling into a concoction so maddening it’d make anyone want to buy bundles of pudding and fly away.

In her last book of interviews “Afterglow,” published in 2002, Pauline Kael notes that she had an “awfully good time” with Anderson’s Magnolia, enjoyed the first half of Boogie Nights, and describes his movies as being “fun to watch.” She then goes on to say, while discussing various contemporary stars and movies, that she doesn’t “get Adam Sandler at all” and doesn’t understand “what makes him funny to people.” Perhaps Punch-Drunk Love could’ve worked its magic on Kael as it did with Ebert, and converted her to see the Sandler-light, but that’s one we’ll never know. Punch-Drunk Love reaches to people on both sides of the cinematic isle, trying to soothe the nay-saying elitists into realizing that it’s O.K. to enjoy a Sandler movie. Nobody will judge you. The final shot of the movie shows Lena with her arms lovingly folded around a serene Barry as he sits playing his harmonium. Lena whispers into his ears “so here we go,” and the relationship takes off with one last blossom of blue light.

Born in 1990, Adam Buffery grew up on musicals, thanks to his Israeli mom and British dad, and wanted to be Gene Kelly after seeing Singin’ in the Rain. He would like to thank Spielberg and John Williams for giving him a lifetime fear of sharks. Adam’s favorite filmmaker is Paul Thomas Anderson. Read more »


Screenwriter must-read: Paul Thomas Anderson’s screenplay for Punch-Drunk Love [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available from the Criterion Collection and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

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Filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson and actor Adam Sandler on their film, Punch-Drunk Love.


“I met Tom Cruise when Nicole Kidman did SNL, Cruise had a Yankee cap dipped down low, and he looked up, and I was, like, in love with him. Tom called me up, and he says, ‘I’m doing a movie with my friend Paul, and he’s interested in doing a movie with you. Can I put him on the phone?’ Paul was very nice, and he says, ‘Hey, I loved Billy Madison.’ And I was like, ‘Okay, thanks,’ but I didn’t know who he was. ‘Is it OK if I write you a movie?’ But then, honest to God, it was like 11 in the morning, and I had nothing to do, and Magnolia just came out, and I said, ‘I think this is that kid’s movie. I’m going to go see that.’ It was sold out, and I was in the front row, and I was looking up at it, and I was fucking terrified, and I was going, ‘Oh this guy is fucking better than me. I don’t want to be in this. I’m going to ruin his movie! Holy shit!’” —Adam Sandler

Adam Sandler got into the entire process of making Punch-Drunk Love on the SmartLess podcast.


The Concept Comedies is the third installment of The Directors Series’ examination into the films and careers of director Paul Thomas Anderson, covering his short foray into experimental art comedies: various music videos & short works (2000-2002); Punch-Drunk Love (2002); various short comedy sketches (2002).



“I met Paul on his very first film, Hard Eight—it was still called Sydney at that point. He’d been listening to Michael Penn’s first record and tried to get in touch with him about doing music for the movie. Michael told Paul, ‘Well, I wasn’t planning on working on any films, but there’s a guy I’ve wanted to work with, and he knows a bunch of musicians and stuff. Between the two of us, we could probably cover anything that comes up.’ That’s essentially how we all met; that would have been the mid-Nineties. After Magnolia, Paul talked about wanting to make something that had ‘more sweetness’ to it. I remember hearing him in an interview once talk about how he’ll have small scraps of paper that he collects, all filled with random ideas: ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if this happened in a film?’ You know, like the pudding-coupon idea. Or he may have something specifically stylistic in mind. But eventually, he’ll gather all this stuff and go on a writing jag. Then it all comes together.” —Jon Brion: How I Made the Soundtrack for Punch-Drunk Love

“Few films have combined the effervescence of classic Hollywood with the anxious rhythms of modern life as boldly as Punch-Drunk Love, Paul Thomas Anderson’s manic portrait of a novelty-toilet-plunger salesman whose world is unsettled by a new romance. Anderson’s stylistic idiosyncrasies, as in many of his other films, are reflected in his audacious approach to music. To provide the film with its jittering heartbeat, the director worked closely with Jon Brion, a producer and instrumentalist renowned for his collaborations with a wide range of artists, including Rufus Wainwright, Aimee Mann, and Fiona Apple. The resulting score, a mix of swooning, melodic orchestration and startling dissonance, highlights the film’s relentless push and pull between joy and dread. For our edition of the film, Brion sat down with us to discuss his work on the film. In the clip below, Brion recalls the unconventional methods he and Anderson used to create the rhythms of the score.” —Jon Brion on Creating the Rhythms of Punch-Drunk Love


Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love. Photographed by Bruce Birmelin © New Line Cinema, Revolution Studios, Ghoulardi Film Company. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.


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