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Punch-Drunk Love


Year: 2002 
Running Time:
Aspect Ratio: 2.39:1 (Scope) 
Certificate: BBFC 15 Cert – Not suitable for under 15s 
Subtitles: This film is not expected to be subtitled, though this cannot be guaranteed. 
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson 
Starring: Adam Sandler, Emily Watson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Luis Guzman, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Ashley Clark  
An image from Punch-Drunk Love

Before he was off scoring 50 first dates with Drew Barrymore, Sandler had earned a boatload of arthouse cache as the star here: a much less typical romantic hero. Barry Egan is neurotic, constantly harried by his sisters and humiliated at work and in private. All manner of stresses, from a bewilderingly proportioned scam for free air tickets to a phone-sex extortion racket, build up to a broiling rage under Barry’s implacable façade; a fantastic use of the physicality he usually tips into comedy. But one day, after a chance encounter with Lena Leonard (Emily Watson), romance blossoms–out of which Barry learns a new strength and stability.

Punch-Drunk Love came at a strange time for Paul Thomas Anderson, having been produced between two of his grander masterpieces: a candy-floss construction that could have been mere respite from meaty American epics. However, this carries DNA from both, Magnolia’s frantic urban energy being calmed by the cosmic forces of attraction that grew onwards from There Will Be Blood. And, somehow - what with the abstract moments, Sandler and Watson’s bewildering sincerity, and a constantly churning soundtrack - it comes together deliciously. Every quirky flourish plays second fiddle to a hopelessly charming romance which doesn’t outstay its welcome at an hour and a half. A jagged, warm hug of a film.

Max King

Punch Drunk Love is the sort of film that has a film reviewer sitting in front of a laptop computer thinking “and just how do I condense this without giving the whole film away?” Well, the simple answer is, I can’t.

What I can tell you is that the film features Adam Sandler as Barry Egan, a small-time businessman working from a warehouse who, at the beginning of the film, is feeling somewhat unfulfilled in his life. He has seven sisters who all constantly remind him of his childhood nickname of “gay boy” and his product line includes personalised toilet brushes. Oh, and he has an anger management problem. In short, he’s what most people would call an “eccentric.” The sort of person who calls a sex line in the hope of a decent, innocent conversation (with incredible results). The sort of person who would call a food company to alert them to an oversight in their special air miles offer, and then proceed to buy a lifetime’s supply of pudding from his local supermarket to take advantage of said oversight.

One day, Lena (Watson) walks into Barry’s life, heralded by the almost simultaneous (and completely bizarre) appearance of a harmonium on the side of the road near Barry’s warehouse. Lena is a friend of one of Barry’s sisters, and fell in love with Barry when she saw a photograph of him. And so the most tangible relationship in the entire film is constructed.

You see? This film just can’t be condensed. A tad ironic, perhaps, since it’s one of the shortest films you’ll probably ever see from Magnolia writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson, coming in at just over 90 minutes. Sandler is slightly more restrained than usual as the self-effacing Barry, and Emily Watson plays Lena with as much clarity as she can, though for my money, both pale into insignificance thanks to the masterful Philip Seymour Hoffman. He’s not in the film a great deal, but his mere presence on screen makes the whole film worthwhile.

There is no denying that this film is confusing, and I can’t even attempt to explain how you’ll feel when you see it, but that’s precisely why you should see it. It may not be brash and it certainly isn’t formulaic, but it will definitely remind you of one of the reasons cinema exists in the first place - to cause wonder.

Laura Watson

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Screenings of this film:

2002/2003 Summer Term (35mm)
2022/2023 Summer Term (35mm)