What wears red, white and blue, has super strength, and flies all over the world? In “Punch-Drunk Love,” the answer isn’t a delayed American Airlines 747, nor is it Superman (although there’s a lot to support that.) Rather, it’s the beleaguered Barry Egan, the timid and foolhardy San Fernando Valley salesman played by a post-Billy Madison, pre-Jack and Jill Adam Sandler. And for 90 minutes, Barry is the object of our frequent-flying affection in Paul Thomas Anderson’s least formal movie yet.
If there’s a common thread between the remarkably versatile Anderson movies, it’s that each of its protagonists are gifted in an unconventional way, (Frank Mackey with his gift of gab, Dirk Diggler with his big, well…) and are surrounded by people but still socially isolated (Daniel Plainview, Freddie Quell, Mr. Phantom Thread guy). But Barry is the most timid and least destructive of these protagonists, a man who doesn’t really carry around a damaged past since he doesn’t own a briefcase to put one in. If you were to ask someone the difference between happy and content, you’d slap a big ole picture of Barry’s mug underneath the latter. He is the guy who cashes in on every free birthday meal he can, but specifically requests the wait staff don’t sing to him before he even orders.
By limiting Barry’s potential and making him so relatable to the undiagnosed, mentally-ill masses , “Punch-Drunk Love” finds ample room for comedic flight. Even its more violent events are relatively benign, putting us in a safe area where Barry can be laughed at but never where he’s the butt of the joke. We watch Barry navigate through the pains of his low-key office job, insults from of his overbearing sister, blisters from cutting too many frequent flyer coupons, and aches from a lovely girl who’s captured his heart. The primary conflict stems from a phone sex operator trying to extort Barry for cash, but he always puts that in the rear-view, motivated by his newfound love.
Barry’s romp feels funny and looks prestigious, every shot articulated in a way not to represent an event but a hidden meaning lurking behind it. But the film never reaches a sense of mastery, like there is some better version of “Punch-Drunk Love” out there waiting to be made. We still get the existential gripe of “is this all there is?” that looms over all Anderson characters heads. But “Punch-Drunk Love” is the first where that sense of gloom has permeated beyond the screen into viewers’ minds
And maybe that’s the point. Anderson famously said with “Punch-Drunk Love,” he didn’t want to make something as complex as “Boogie Nights” or “Magnolia.” And it’s possible he was referring less to story but overall quality of the film itself, like if David Chase ditched the grueling artistry of “The Sopranos” to write thin, candy plotlines for “iCarly.” If that’s true, that Anderson wanted to make a movie specifically worse than his previous ones, then he succeeded in his aim. All we’re left to wonder, though, if if you set out to shoot a good but not great movie and hit your mark, did you really succeed or did you fail?