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Joe Stile | Amo

A shadier view

Published: Thursday, February 14, 2013

Updated: Thursday, February 14, 2013 22:02

Every so often, a film will come out that tries to reinterpret a simple, universal story with a darker slant. “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters” is a current, albeit silly, example of one of the hundreds of films that re−imagines a world we all know in a way that is very different and more complex than we are used to.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Punch−Drunk Love” (2002) does this same trick with Adam Sandler’s screen persona. If you’ve seen a Sandler film, you know his man−child act that runs throughout almost all of them. In this type of role, Sandler is juvenile, prone to fits of rage and sudden outbursts of tears and is completely disconnected from the adult world around him.

In essence, he is the embodiment of a bratty kid. The humor stems from seeing a fully−grown man act out like a spoiled five year old or an angsty prepubescent in a way that is incongruous with viewers’ expectations of how an adult should behave. In these films, Sandler’s man−child is glorified so that his stunted nature seems both innocent and fun.

“Punch−Drunk Love” refuses to gloss over the darker side of that kind of stilted adolescence. The film instead makes that type of arrested development seem sad and dangerous.

Right from the start, Sandler’s character, Barry Egan, appears anxious, scared and most of all lonely no matter where he is or whom he is with. This all stems from how Egan radiates self−doubt. Though most man−child centered films love to highlight the lack of responsibilities aspect of boyhood, they ignore another crucial part of adolescence: the turmoil that arises from a lack of a real sense of identity.

Egan rarely makes eye contact in the movie, appears physically ill whenever he is made the center of attention and answers almost every question he is asked with a self−conscious, “I don’t know.” He is completely emasculated and bullied by his older sisters — the natural enemy of most young kids — in a way that suggests he lacks a will of his own.

It is hard not to pity him throughout these incidents. When his frustration finally does boil over in a few violent outbursts, like when he kicks in some glass doors, it isn’t the kind of funny temper tantrum you see in Sandler’s other films, but rather a pathetic display of a man who isn’t comfortable with his core self.

What makes Lena (Emily Watson) Egan’s soul mate, despite how little the two actually say or interact with each other, is how easily she can see the real him through all the chaos of his life. She can see who Egan really is even if he himself can’t.

This gets beautifully played out in Jon Brion’s score. Brion, known for his phenomenal production work with artists ranging from Fiona Apple to Kanye West, uses disharmonious percussion to emphasize the disarray of Egan’s normal work and lush orchestration to show the soothing effects Lena has on him.

The score makes viewers feel Egan’s chronic discomfort, as does the film’s oddly paced dialogue and visuals, putting them on edge. Lena’s appearances calm everything else around Egan, making viewers feel as if nothing could bother him with her by his side. It is a basic technique, but it works so well because of how committed all of Anderson’s directorial choices are to making it work.

While most consider “Punch−Drunk Love” to be a very minor work in Anderson’s impressive filmography, it’s actually a fairly challenging film that responds to a wide range of current movies while simultaneously creating a hugely satisfying, emotionally expressive motion picture.

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