Magazine article Filmmaker

Punch-Drunk Love

Magazine article Filmmaker

Punch-Drunk Love

Article excerpt

At the dawn of the new millennium, three films into an already storied directing career marked by youthful ambition and the lavish exorcism of personal demons, Paul Thomas Anderson decided to try his hand at something a little simpler. He would make a stripped-down love story free from the cross-cut sprawl of his previous two Valley epics, Magnolia and Boogie Nights. It would be about ninety minutes long, honest-to-gosh, lean, light, playful. A comedy. And it would star Adam Sandler as Barry Egan, a lonely, rumpled borderline-psychotic with seven sisters who sells toilet plungers and buys a pallet-full of Healthy Choice pudding so that one day he might go somewhere. Also, he learns a little bit about how to love another person.

There was a real pudding man, a civil engineer in California who really did buy up a ton of Healthy Choice pudding in 1999 and, having discovered a promotional loophole, cashed it all in for over a million frequent flier miles. It's a little-goofball-takes-on-the-free-market story, the kind of vaguely affirming real-life thing you might hear on Good Morning America while you're pouring milk over your cereal and then forget forever. That it sparked such a unique and, it's safe to say 15 years on and with a new Criterion Collection Blu-ray coming out, durable movie is a tribute to the kind of magic that can be created when an artist ignores, and is enabled to ignore - by a studio, by producers, by a cast, a cinematographer, a costumer, a production designer, a composer, a sound designer, an editor, all in happy harmony - the limits to how such a film story should be told. Indeed, the production of this small-but-sumptuous studio movie might compare favorably to a good marriage: doubt was navigated, trust was paramount. Paul Thomas Anderson, applying his all-important powers of persuasion, convinced literally hundreds of people to believe in him. "Here we go," he said. And so the movie's with us now, for good.

So it's a story about loneliness and love, built with faith and trust, and, unsurprisingly, necessarily, it feels like a balancing act. Punch-Drunk Love shouldn't really work, and it knows it. Its quotidian bleakness - the San Fernando Valley's tracts of nothing, the vertical blinds in Barry's apartment, the white walls everywhere, the time-sucking phone calls and recited credit card numbers and needless, needless lies - might feel dour (or, god help us, faux-dour, also known as "quirky") in less confident hands. …

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