Punch Drunk Love was made at a strange time for Paul Thomas Anderson.
Falling between the epic ambitions of Magnolia (1999) and the darkness of There Will Be Blood (2007), it acts as a transition of sorts, ferrying us from the energy and dynamism of his early career to the patience and restraint he exhibits today. Punch Drunk Love - the closest thing to outright comedy he's produced - condenses its director's vibrant style into a relatively brief and arty romance/comedy, eschewing the melodrama of its predecessor and cleansing the palette for what was to come.
Rereleased as part of Criterion's November slate, the film concerns Barry Egan (Adam Sandler) a troubled and intensely shy novelty product salesman, embroiled in a corporate air-mile exploit, involving $3,000 worth of pudding, and a phone-sex blackmail scam simultaneously. The film channels all the good-natured whimsy of Hal Ashby through the immaculate craft of Robert Altman, resulting in a film that is at once eccentric and rooted firmly in a familiar world. It is also perhaps Anderson's only film to provide its audience with an unflinchingly good (as in pure) protagonist who is gifted a totally undiluted (as in clause-free) happy ending - something of a rarity for his characters.
Magnolia, for example, wades through the murky waters of its cast's ambiguous moralities to show us seemingly good people who have done exceedingly bad things, whilst Eli Sunday, a man of God, is ultimately murdered in in There Will be Blood. Elsewhere, at the climax of Hard Eight (1996), protagonist Sydney is shown to be alone once again at after having killed to save a pair of young lovers, and Dirk Diggler happily returns to the porn industry that proved so toxic in Boogie Nights (1997).
The message here is perhaps that these men and women, burdened with such grim fates, are not naturally good, but simply act good to further their interests, and are punished as a result. Barry Egan, on the other hand, is naturally good and pure, and is therefore rewarded. His purpose here is not monetary, material or reputational gain, but love, that redemptive force that few ever truly experience in Anderson's world. I also submit that this message is partially hidden beneath the guise of an analogy, one that goes some way to explaining why Egan is the only character in the director's filmography to be given a positive outcome.
Let's quickly cycle through the characteristics and events that define Barry Egan and the narrative:
- Barry Egan has seven sisters
- Barry Egan wears a blue suit (Fig ii)
- Barry Egan is shown at points to have strength disproportionate to his size and build
- Barry Egan is prone to bouts of debilitating rage and sadness when around his family
- Barry Egan exploits an air miles loophole to gain the ability to fly around the world indefinitely.
- Barry's love interest is named Lena Leonard (L.L)
- Barry uses a fake name when calling a sex line
For a director of Anderson's skill and talent, these are not merely quirks. If he wished to hide these aspects better then he would have, but instead, he places them deliberately at the centre of the developing story.
And so, depending on how familiar you are with comic lore, Barry Egan seems to sound an awful lot like Superman.￼ ￼
He can fly, he wears a blue suit; he has "so much strength in him you have no idea" and his lover's initials match with the initials of Lois Lane. Further, the seven sisters allude to a star cluster formally named the Pleiades, hinting that Egan is from outer space, and exposure to these sisters results in the aforementioned bouts of rage, providing us with his kryptonite. For a director so focused on hiding details in the very corners and fine creases of each frame, this is far too obvious to be coincidence.
Here Anderson creates a character in the image of Superman because of that character's defining traits. Superman is the very embodiment of good, protecting his love and the entirety of her race not because he wants to gain anything, but because it is the right thing to do. Likewise, Egan is shown to overcome the forces of evil and protect Lena not because he has to, but because he truly and deeply wants to. "I'm a nice man," he asserts when confronting the group attempting to blackmail him, and we, as an audience, believe this. (fig iv)￼
The conflict between good and evil permeates throughout Anderson's work - be that Doc Sportello coming up against the shady Golden Fang organisation in Inherent Vice (2014) or Lancaster Dodd corrupting the mind of the damaged Freddy Quell in The Master (2012), though for either side to come out unscathed, let alone on top, is rarely observed. The Superman parable here functions to calibrate the moral compass of Anderson's entire filmography and convey the message that only the truly good are rewarded, whereas those who act out of greed or spite, or with hidden intentions, will suffer.￼
In what some see as an anomaly in Anderson's career, not in the sense of its quality, but rather its tone, is contained perhaps the most explicit insight into the laws of morality that govern his universe. Where his characters often blur the lines between good and evil, here the two are presented as binaries, with an inherently good character coming up against dark forces, in both analogy and reality. And so Barry Egan succeeds, and lives happily ever after, not because of his cunning or his strength, but because of his inner goodness and its organic nature - an important lesson for trying times.