After the magisterial scope of Boogie Nights and Punch-Drunk Love, Paul Thomas Anderson returned to the smaller scale of his debut feature with Punch-Drunk Love, a virtual two-hander that barely clocks in at ninety minutes. Charmingly and deliberately slight after the sprawl of his previous two features, Punch-Drunk Love feels like it might be a story extracted from a wider ensemble drama, since it’s both small-scale and porous, minor yet rich in the same way as a good subplot. Stylistically, the opening scene picks up right where Magnolia left off, introducing us to social misfit Barry Egan, played by Adam Sandler, as he leaves his office in an automotive business to wander outside to the highway, where he is greeted by an ambiguous event that recalls the fall of frogs during the final act of Anderson’s previous film. After gazing up and down the empty San Fernando Valley road, Barry appears to witness a car accident, before discovering a pianola that has been left on the footpath. In a moment of intuitive inspiration, Barry grabs the pianola and carries it back to his office. On the way, he meets Lena Leonard, played by Emily Watson, who asks him if he can take care of her vehicle until the automotive mechanics arrive, since it’s still very early in the morning.
During these opening scenes, there’s a similar sense of scale to both Boogie Nights and Magnolia, as Anderson opts for widescreen perspectives that evoke vast reservoirs of space, as well as the sprawl of the San Fernando Valley, stretching the screen so far that there are lens flares in every other shot. While this breadth of scope is paired with the same fluid tracking shots as in his last two films, these shots feel less discrete, and are subsumed into a digital murk that’s more conspicuous than in either Boogie Nights or Magnolia. In both those films, Anderson traced the devolution of 70s cinema into 90s cinema by way of a decaying tracking-shot that gradually lost its silky sinuosity, degenerating into a series of rapid focus pulls towards the end of Boogie Nights, and then a series of glitchy swivel pans midway through Magnolia. All the angst bound up in that deteriorating camera mobility has taken on a new form in Punch-Drunk Love, which is the first of Anderson’s films to fully accept the inevitability of a digital milieu, as well as his last film to take place in the present.
In fact, Punch-Drunk Love occupies the present tense even more improbably and uncomfortably than Magnolia. Yet whereas Magnolia required an ensemble effort to make this present unbearable, distributing the burden of imminent digitization so that no single character had to withstand it for too long, Punch-Drunk Love explores the effects of digitization on the individual – the white male individual – through two figurative gestures that lay the foundation for what would become the indie American cinema of the 2000s. Ironically, Anderson’s next film, released in 2007, would be largely disinterested in the indie cinema that Punch-Drunk Love helped create, even if it continued the two figurative gestures implemented here in its own original and inimitable way. The first of these gestures is Anderson’s obsession with arrested development, and the precocity of a white manchild who hasn’t yet graduated into proper manhood. In many ways, this has been a preoccupation of American cinema for decades, but Anderson’s original spin is to resolve it through a narrative built around the precious, fragile and twee gestures of trust that would become so integral to 00s indie cinema – trust as a new cinematic trope, and a new kind of cringe cinema, that here results in one of the original manic pixie dream girls of the 2000s.
One of the key elements of this cringe cinema is casting both Emily Watson and Adam Sandler against type – Watson as the manic pixie dream girl who pursues Barry against any real logic or plausibility, and Sandler as the quintessence of niceness whose reminds us, time and again, that “I didn’t do anything. I mind my own business. I’m a nice man.” At the time, it was quite surprising to see both these actors in these roles, giving their performances a freshness, vulnerability and cringiness that can sometimes obscure what a conventional narrative is really taking place in Punch-Drunk Love. For the most part, this is a 00s update of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty – it’s Walter Mitty paired with 00s affect – as we follow the picaresque travails of a white man whose professional ambitions haven’t been fulfilled, and whose professional aspirations don’t in and of themselves grant him gravitas. Although we first meet Barry as a professional discontent, he owns and operates his own business, and seems to be doing a whole lot better than his Latino employees, whose presence alternately mocks him with the spectre of “real” work, and causes him status anxiety about whether he is far enough removed from them as a leader. To try and address both those concerns, he perpetually wears a suit that’s just a bit too formal for even his position – a suit that forms the picaresque centre around which the film pirouettes in its bathetic vision of a white man whose professional aspirations never quite live up to reality.
The result is a kind of cocooned absurdity that often reminded me of the opening scenes of Fight Club, since in both films there’s a sense that the professional disenfranchisement of white middle-class men is connected to a newly absurd and uncomfortable relation to consumer culture. More specifically, both Barry and the Narrator of Fight Club find themselves faced with a consumer culture that is no longer addressing white men directly or exclusively – a promiscuous flourishing of late capitalism that has exceeded the white voices that once mediated and contained it. For Barry, this awkward position between production and consumption is particularly pronounced, since his automotive company also produces gag gifts that don’t correspond to any consumer needs he can conceive, while he can only understand his own purchase of consumer items by way of a broader conspiratorial narrative that allows him to assume that the objects he buys are still speaking to him in a direct and exclusive manner. He’s particularly obsessed with a pudding brand that comes with airline credits, eventually discovering a loophole that allows him to purchase tickets to Hawaii after buying out an entire supermarket’s supply within a very short window of time.
This sense of a burgeoning, yet picaresque, conspiracy, is one of several factors that makes Punch-Drunk Love feel like an adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s worldview – and more Pynchonesque, in its own way, than Anderson’s adaptation of Inherent Vice fifteen years later – and Pynchon’s presence particularly pronounced in Barry’s most tortured relation to consumer culture, in the form of his love-hate relationship with phone sex lines. Early on, it becomes clear that Barry consumes phone sex more vividly and voraciously than any other commodity, but that he is also the most paranoid about himself as a consumer within this milieu as well. It’s only very grudgingly that he gives his credit card details to his latest number, and his fears turn out to be well-founded, since the woman he speaks to, and then her boss, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, turn the tables on him and take his credit card hostage, embarking on a blackmail scam that turns into the film’s main narrative propulsion.
As might be expected, this just makes Barry’s world even more compressed, as well as the ways his outlook is reflected in the look and sound of the film. Visually, everything in Punch-Drunk Love converges on the brilliant, blinding light that is always intruding upon Anderson’s mise-en-scenes from the outside world. Barry is nearly always hiding from the glare of this world, or shunning direct sunlight – light so bright that it loses any residual warmth, and instead becomes a threatening horizon of whiteness, as well as presaging the colder digital light that was lurking around the fringes of Magnolia, missives from a future world lit almost entirely by portable electronic devices. With this light seeping into and saturating every interior, most spaces in the film take on a slight blue tinge, as if Barry’s suit were trying to insinuate its way into every nook and cranny, while also diluting and degenerating in the process. If this visual palette captures the unimaginable horizons of white professional satisfaction, then Anderson’s sonic signature captures the dissonances of actual white professionalism, especially in the scenes when Barry is at work, which are nearly always paired with one of Anderson’s and Jon Brion’s most complex soundscapes to date.
With multiple overlapping planes of sound, these sonic bursts feel like the film’s wires have been crossed, or as if two or three separate soundtracks are playing out at once, taking the radical simultaneity of Magnolia to an even more unbearable and inchoate level. The swivel pans of Magnolia, which emerged out of the focus pulls of Boogie Nights (and more distantly the tracking shots of Boogie Nights) are even more manic and unhinged here, as the film starts to literally disintegrate whenever Barry has to step into the role of a successful employer and provider – and whenever he puts on his suit. As if all the manic connective tissue of Magnolia had been condensed and compressed to one space, the automotive shop grows more dissonant and disjunctive with each new person or process that Barry tries to include in his professional purview, until the film becomes a kind of exercise in remix culture, reified in the shifting colour montages that recur between the most dramatically disjointed audiovisual sequences. While these tendencies are concentrated on Barry’s workplace, they also rupture the surrounding architecture and topography of San Fernando, turning Southern California into a series of endless corridors and loosely contiguous spaces, connected by a provisionally conspiratorial presence, that comes closer to an affective adaptation of The Crying of Lot 49 than any film that I’ve seen, right down to the surf rock melodies that careen out over the shift to Hawaii in the third act.
In all three of Anderson’s earlier films, this disintegration of cinema corresponded to the waning paternal presence of 70s cinema, and the sinking possibility that the paternal icons of 70s cinema – and the fathers who form their surrogates in Anderson’s narratives – were still extracting more pleasure from the present than the present could ever hope to extract from them. In a sense, the ensemble sprawl of Boogie Nights and Magnolia was needed to both evoke the scale of this paternal cinematic presence, but also to prevent Anderson’s characters being utterly destroyed by them, since it’s unthinkable that any of the sons in Magnolia, in particular, would have survived if they had been the sole targets of that film’s monstrous paternal energy. This situation is both more and less intense in Punch-Drunk Love, since while Barry may be the only character, there’s no mention of a father, let alone a monstrous father. However, Barry still suffers the emasculation of Anderson’s other characters, but without a monstrous father-figure to even define himself against, instead having to contend with seven sisters, all of whom are uniformly horrible, and who we first meet en masse in the midst of reminiscing about how they all used to call Barry “gay boy”.
While this is quite an ingenious evolution of Anderson’s earlier concerns, it produces a bit of toxic characterology in which all the women in the film fall into two basic “types”. On the one hand, there are the shrews – his sisters – who refuse to concede the importance of Barry’s work, and continually remind him that he can never hope to achieve a father-function in their family, since their own father is so notional and remote that he’s not even available as a point of reference. On the other hand, there are the women who play out as fantasy – the pin-up in the garage that forms the backdrop to our first glimpse of Barry’s most toxic sister, the women at the other end of his phone sex lines and, of course, the manic pixie dream girl, embodied here in the person (it doesn’t seem right to call her a character) of Lena Leonard. Caught between shrews and fantasies, Barry is never quite able to maintain his fantasies, at least not in the first part of the film, when the intrusion of the phone sex company into his professional and financial life means that he has to put his burgeoning relationship with Lena on hold. Yet combatting the phone sex scam isn’t simply necessary for his relationship with Lena – it is his relationship with Lena, since both phone sex and manic pixie dream girl love play out on the same fragile field of fantasy to start with.
No surprise, then, that there’s a fairy tale quality to the third act of the film, when Barry follows Lena to Hawaii, and makes love with her for the first time. Up until this point, the energy of Punch-Drunk Love has been quite close to a regular Sandler film, which typically features him in a mild role that makes his eventual flipouts even more cathartic, much as Barry periodically breaks his niceness with fits of rage and crying, especially when confronted with his shrewish sisters. The difference, however, is that we never really see these outbursts in much detail in Punch-Drunk Love, since they’re largely deferred for the first two acts, and then deflected into a fairy tale register in the Hawaii sequence. As we move towards this sequence, Anderson shifts more and more vertiginously between the blinding white light outside Barry’s office, and the overlapping sonic planes inside, which are visualised as the abstract rainbow interludes that take Barry’s dissonance beyond what is figuratively possible within the film’s naturalistic framework, much as the frogfall at the end of Magnolia acknowledged that its various anxieties needed a new supernaturalism to express themselves. As this bright light becomes more urgent and demanding, Barry has to activate this rainbow palette within the film, and the remix culture it stands for, which he does by examining a multicoloured map of the United States to commit to his trip to Hawaii.
As a result, Hawaii is presented as a refraction of whiteness, and white light, back into all the colours of the rainbow, taking us back to an earlier time when whiteness was still capable of commanding a scope and scale that is leached from it here – a time when whiteness wasn’t just white. Anderson marks this process by framing Hawaii in a more classical cinematic lexicon, from a stylised chase sequence to old-fashioned slapstick, as if a part of old Hollywood were still deterretorialised and drifting amidst its own fantasy of the Hawaiian islands. The contrapuntal chaos of Barry’s office is now resolved into the calypso tones of Oahu, as Anderson’s sinuous tracking-shots make an unexpected and beautiful return – once again around a swimming pool complex, echoing Boogie Nights as the camera moves from street to beach as dusk is fading over Waikiki, in one of the most plangent sequences of Anderson’s career so far. In effect, classical Hollywood’s anachronistic fantasy of Hawaii segues into Barry’s anachronistic fantasy of white masculinity, turning Hawaii into a surrogate and replacement for the absent cinematic paternalism that haunts Anderson’s career, perhaps explaining why this is also the most comforting sequence he has ever shot.
The dramatically elongated perspectives of Punch-Drunk Love thus capture a new kind of white flight, as Barry seeks out lines of flight from modes of white disenfranchisement that are no longer exclusively spatial, but have taken on wider and more amorphous cultural forms. In response, Barry has to learn to remix whiteness, and concoct a new kind of white fantasy, or even replace one fantasy with another, acknowledging the limitations of the old one without being able to concede the limitations of the new. Put more bluntly, Punch-Drunk Love acknowledges that the kinds of white masculine exceptionalism it mourns are inextricable from fantasy – or at least acknowledges these fantasies as much as it possibly can without totally jettisoning them as fantasy either. Hence the weird showdown between Barry and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character, Dean Trumbell, who is the biggest threat to fantasy in the film, both in his role as the orchestrator of the phone sex scam, but also in his aggressively macho delivery, which continually seems on the verge of rupturing Barry’s fragile fantasmatic world. Indeed, the final scene makes us expect that this is precisely what will occur, only for Dean to suddenly and incongruously capitulate, as the film sides with Barry and with fantasy, making for an oddly deflated and inconsequential closing sequence.
And that sense of inconsequentiality hangs over much of the third act of Punch-Drunk Love, even – or especially – as it produces some of the most beautiful moments in Anderson’s career to date. As Hawaii bridges the gap between the intensified present tense of Magnolia and the remainder of Anderson’s career, which consists entirely of period dramas, you feel that something urgent and vital about his vision is being swallowed up in Barry’s self-pity, even if it paves the way for something very different and interesting in Anderson’s filmography as well. Still, it feels appropriate that the last part of the Hawaii sequence is set to “He Needs Me,” the main song performed by Shelley Duvall’s Olive Oyl in Robert Altman’s Popeye. Like Popeye, Punch-Drunk Love marks the end of Anderson’s greatest ensemble period, but also the end of his first and best golden age – the period when his cinema was vitally, inextricably bound up with the present moment, with an urgency that it has never quite recovered, even if it has resulted in different kinds of masterpieces in turn.