Punch-Drunk Love (Anderson, 2002)


January 17, 2012

(Ed.: Today we have a welcome guest post from Nicholas Olson, who pens The Moviegoer.)

Audiences were largely unsure about what to make of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love when it was released almost a decade ago. Part of the quizzical reaction was that it was not a standard Adam Sandler film. Even critics found Anderson’s romantic dramedy peculiar: “none of it makes a lick of sense,” “wacky . . . unpredictable,” “not everyone’s cup of tea,” “unconventional,” “a startling achievement,” “a weird, arresting little ride,” and “one of the strangest and most beguiling romantic comedies ever made.”

Of course, critics could be referring to any one of the film’s many oddities: the painful awkwardness of Barry Egan (Adam Sandler), a bizarre car accident, the quirky musical score provided by Jon Brion, or perhaps it is the mysterious light and color scheme that often flashes across the screen during the film. Whatever the case, perhaps the oddity of Punch-Drunk Love is not necessarily one to be solved, but is instead a beautiful strangeness to be identified—a mystery that is generative rather than bewildering. If so, you might say that identifying the strangeness in Anderson’s film begins with noting the precarious arrival of an instrument that is only named once during the film.

 At the mysterious center of Anderson’s film is the harmonium.  











Barry decides to claim this harmonium, which, inexplicably, has been dumped on the side of the road near his workplace. The irony of the situation soon becomes apparent, because Barry’s life—his very identity—is anything but harmonious. The opening shot of the film emphasizes the nature of Barry’s existence: alone in the corner of his own self-enclosed world—on the phone where he is safe from intimate human contact. Barry is a loner. Different loners have different reasons for their loneliness. At least in part, Barry’s alienation is the result of his paralyzing self-doubt. He’s afraid to let people get close to him out of the fear that they’ll treat him similarly to the belittling way that his horde of sisters treats him.

 Even more troubling for Barry, though, is that because he is a loner, he has no one who can reveal what is wrong with him—at least not in a way that can assuage his insecurities. At a party at his sister’s house, Barry cries a plea for psychological help to one of his brother-in-laws, who—humorously—is a dentist: “I don’t like myself sometimes. . . . I don’t have anyone I can talk to about things. . . . I don’t know if anything is wrong because I don’t know how other people are.” Barry’s self-worth issues are probably tied to his being incessantly picked on. But try as he might to keep these problems hidden, Barry’s wounds often boil over into tempestuous explosions of anger. In short, Barry is shrouded in self-enclosed darkness; he is receiving no light that can illuminate the source of his problems.

 Given Anderson’s noticeable use of light and color in this film, we might say that Barry’s life is a dark, chaotic blue.


The essence of Barry’s chaos is nowhere more evident than when he decides to place a call to a phone sex line after seeing an advertisement which refers to the disembodied liaison as an “intimate affair.”  Revealingly, Barry isn’t initially all that interested in masturbating to a woman’s voice; rather, he seems more interested in carrying on a conversation from a safe distance—hoping to come upon a truly intimate relationship, without revealing any of his personal problems. Eventually, though, Barry tells the lady of the phone line that he masturbates when he feels lonely. Due to his fear of transparency, Barry is unable to enter into fruitful relationships, and instead, he is left to wallow in an onanistic existence. Yet, how can he have a meaningful identity or life without meaningful relationships? And how can he have meaningful relationships without the courage to reveal all of himself—messiness included?

On the same day that the harmonium appears, so too does an attractive woman named Lena (Emily Watson). She is disarmingly kind, exuding a seraphic appeal that is warm like a welcoming embrace. She tells Barry that she wanted to meet him after simply seeing his picture. Barry is attracted to Lena, but his insecurities still put him in a state of social paralysis when he first meets her. Yet, Lena is not put off by Barry’s behavior. Instead, she overcomes Barry’s perennial awkwardness and beckons him to her: she asks him out, she sets the time, and she tells him to pick her up.

But what if she finds out about the violent anger emanating from Barry’s insecurities? There is clearly a sharp contrast between Barry and Lena. When Lena tells Barry that she is an only child, Barry—who again hints at a source of his problems—responds tellingly that it “must be nice to be an only child.” But Lena responds that it is “terrible.” Loneliness is just as bleak as dysfunctional relationships; keeping others at arm’s length only provides an illusion of self-control. While Barry is careful to keep his messiness hidden from Lena during their first date together, she immediately makes herself vulnerable by admitting that she arranged to meet him. Barry struggles to maintain eye contact with her during dinner; Lena is fully focused on him—looking past his awkwardness to notice what is attractive about him.

Barry, however, is still unable to notice the unconditional affection Lena has for him. At dinner, Barry’s violent anger comes to the surface when he feels like his sister has revealed to Lena something embarrassing about him; he’s afraid that she’ll respond to him in the demeaning way he’s accustomed to. Burdened with anxious self-doubt, Barry excuses himself and has an implosion that results in the explosive destruction of the public restroom. When Barry is asked to leave the restaurant, he lies to Lena about the reason for their leaving.

How can this sharp contrast between gracious love and awkward chaos be reconciled? After Barry walks Lena to her door and says good night, Lena calls him before he leaves the apartment complex, and says that “wherever you’re going or whatever you’re doing right now, I wanted you to know that I wanted to kiss you just then.” Lena’s affectionate declaration to Barry—in spite of the night’s awkwardness—is accompanied by unconditionality. It is here that Barry begins to notice the uniqueness of Lena’s love for him. On the same night, after seeing the harmonium in Barry’s office, Lena asks him if he is learning to play it. To which he responds, “I wouldn’t put on any concerts yet.”

Yet, unfortunately for Barry, the consequences of his “intimate affair” are catching up with him. Phone-sex lady is trying to extort money from Barry, threatening to ruin his reputation, and eventually sends hired thugs to beat him up so long as he refuses to pay her more money. Eventually, Barry can no longer conceal the consequences of his onanistic behavior. Barry’s and Lena’s lives are both threatened when they are t-boned in an intentional car accident caused by the phone-sex thugs. Barry’s chaos has threatened and even harmed Lena. Realizing that he has put her in harm’s way, Barry is determined to put a stop to the phone-sex scammers.

As it turns out, behind the phone-sex scam is Dean Trumbell (played hilariously by Philip Seymour Hoffman). Barry harnesses his rage in a confrontation with the Mattress Man and, in perhaps what is the most memorable line from the film where the comedic, the romantic, and the dramatic all meet at once, Barry sternly warns him: “I have a love in my life and it makes me stronger than anything you can imagine.” Barry’s anger is no longer an eruption of insecure self-protection; it is now a self-confident protection of another person. Generally speaking, the operation of grace effects two different reactions depending on its recipient; it either instills confidence in the lowly, or humility in the boastful. For Barry, Lena’s love has filled him up with what he severely lacked: the courage necessary for self-confidence and assertiveness.

But a truly intimate relationship with Lena has not just produced self-confidence in Barry; it has also freed him to be wholly transparent without fear. He recognizes that he can no longer conceal his problems from Lena. Instead, he finally admits to her that he ruined the bathroom at the restaurant, and that he brought chaos into both of their lives because of his phone-sex call. But, by confessing the counterfeit “intimate affair,” Barry has entered into a truly intimate affair with Lena. By availing himself to the revelatory light of Lena’s grace to him, Barry can begin to see what’s wrong in a way that will enable him to cultivate a more fruitful life.

Embodied by, but not limited to, Lena an exterior mysterious light of grace has intruded into Barry’s life; and in this light, he is finally learning to play the harmonium.