My Year with Adam: Punch-Drunk Love
My Year with Adam is a series of essays that I will post throughout this year. The essays will be deep dives into a film starring Adam Sandler. They will not be traditional reviews, but an exploration of theme and what is conveyed by the central message of the film. Or, really, whatever about the film strikes me the most while watching it. As these are deep dives, no aspect, plot point or quote from the film is off limits, so if you haven't seen the film before and are sensitive to a viewing experience in which you know nothing, then watch the film and come back to the essay. The essays will appear in February, May, August, and November.
Punch-Drunk Love, written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, is about Barry Egan, played by Adam Sandler, who is a lonely, emotionally erratic man. Barry's life is suddenly upturned by the arrival of a mysterious harmonium outside his business. As the days go on he gets mixed up in a blackmail scheme just as he's falling head over heels in love with Lena, played by Emily Watson. Punch-Drunk Love is a film that is not only a love story, but a story about reclaiming and living comfortably with one's identity.
Barry's sisters are a nightmare. From their small bit of screen time the audience sees their cruelty, manipulativeness, selfishness, and, most strangely of all, their love for Barry. They want to protect him, they want him included, and to go about his life in a "normal" way. Yet, they don't realize they're the ones who made him close himself off in the first place. They don't see his intense emotional distress as a cry for help. They struggle to understand why he isn't like them. Though, the answer to that stares them in the face. They rehash the same stories, laughing at Barry's pain. They remind him of his trauma and continue to torture him with it, pointing out the exact reason he has his outbursts in the first place. One of the sisters* remarks, "You'd be fine, then we'd call you 'gay boy' and you'd just freak out." From that statement it should be abundantly clear why Barry would freak out. Outnumbered, overwhelmed, and attacked is exactly when someone would freak out. This is a situation when a human is biologically tuned to freak out. It takes a tremendous amount of strength to stand up to bullies and it's better for Barry when he's one on one with his sisters, but even then it's a losing battle. When Elizabeth, played by Mary Lynn Rajskub, brings up the idea of Barry meeting Lena at the party, she physically corners him and asks him about it. He feels confident enough to answer, "Everybody would be looking at me," and "I just feel like I would be a little tense and I don't think I'd act like myself." Instead of a caring, understanding reaction, Elizabeth spits back, "That's kind of your fault," and "I'm just trying to be your friend, Barry." The sisters don't care who Barry is, they don't care about his problems, they want him to act like what's perceived as normal. It's no wonder Barry reaches out to anyone who could possibly listen to him.
Barry is alone. He has an opportunity with the phone sex operator because there's the promise of confidentiality and the sex worker has no connection whatsoever to his sisters. He has the chance to talk with someone, actually talk with someone, who doesn't know his life or anything real about him, but it's clear the sex worker has no true interest in who he really is. As she keeps goading him toward the intended nature of the call, Barry sinks further into acceptance. He's resigned to the way of this transaction. It's a dalliance, a one off, but later, as he's hounded by the sex worker blackmailing him for money, Barry realizes that someone anonymous could take advantage of him like his sisters do. He gets shoved into a corner again and like with his sisters, he takes the abuse, attempting to lash out, but getting nowhere. He tries to avoid it, he tries to be strong, but it catches up to him because he's alone. They only know him as the pervert, the sleaze bag who called a phone sex line. He has no power, no support, he's got nothing.
Dean Trumbell is powerful. Dean, played exquisitely by Philip Seymour Hoffman, like Barry, is hiding himself, but he goes about it in the opposite way. When it all goes down, Dean becomes the supervisor. His identity is based around that, the strength behind the operation. He's so in charge that when Barry asks for his name, he just shoots back, "What's your name, asshole?" and as Barry shouts his name, Dean flips it again and regains control by a rejoinder of, "How do I know? You could be anybody." The control, the confidence, the blustering anger is what powers him, it's what keeps his empire a float, so when Barry challenges that identity, he has to step forward. In a tense scene as Dean and Barry face off, Dean has to maintain that control. He goes on the offensive saying, "Fuck you. You're a pervert. You think you can be a pervert and not pay for it?" His opening gambit is to try and weaken any claim Barry might have, but his opening gambit is really all the strength he has. Once he's face to face with Barry, he puts on a good show, but he's got nothing else. He gives it all away. Though, to regain his power, he attempts to have the last word. "Now get the fuck out of here, pervert!" is shouted with confidence, but in that moment, the facade crumbles fully, the identity loses its power as two of his underlings watch him cowardly back off after Barry turns back around to deliver the beating he promised. Dean's whole self is propagated on the idea that he's the man with the plan, but it's an identity he created not an identity he owns. He built his identity on fear, not love.
Barry needs to be seen. That first time Barry meets Lena, the gears begin working in his head. He feels her kindness and he's actually seen. Lena keeps her focus on Barry even as Elizabeth berates, belittles and corners him. It's Lena who recognizes that the only way to truly get Barry out of his own head is to get him completely away from his sisters. She wants him to show her what he's been too afraid to show anyone before. Lena allows Barry to be his full self as she lets her own freak flag fly:
Lena: Your face is so adorable. Your skin and your cheek... I want to bite it. I want to bite your cheek and chew it. It's so fucking cute.
Barry: I'm looking at your face and I just want to smash it. I just want to... fucking smash it... with a sledgehammer and squeeze it.
Lena: I want to chew your face and I want to scoop out your eyes and I want to eat them, chew them, and suck on them.
Barry: O.K. This is funny. This is nice.
The lines are not what an audience would regularly consider grand, romantic poetry, but to be completely accepted is utterly romantic. They see each other. They want to know each other and they've given the signal that it's safe to be who they are with the other person. Lena's acceptance is what gives Barry the power to assert himself with Dean. As he and Dean stare each other down, Barry says, "I have so much strength in me, you have no idea. I have a love in my life that makes me stronger than anything you can imagine." Barry's wanted, he's allowed to be himself and he's not going to throw that away on people that want him to be the pervert they make him out to be. Barry is himself.
Adam Sandler is a clown. He's an actor and comedian who has a strong persona. He spent the decade leading up to the release of Punch-Drunk Love building and strengthening that persona into a box office powerhouse. He built his style on rage and being the cool guy in the room, yet in Punch-Drunk Love he gets vulnerable. He channels that rage and brings it into a startlingly believable portrayal of man with a severe anxiety issues. It's the kind of complex role that could lend him clout beyond the rabid fans who want the comfort of an "Adam Sandler Movie." Yet, no organization of his peers recognized his craft then and no audience flocked to see his movie then. That gave audiences another decade or two of the clown, but in the few dramatic roles he's taken since, it shows that Sandler wants more than to be the clown. His identity is not only his persona. His identity is expansive and deep, if the audience allows for him to be so.
Identity is wrapped up in self-worth, self-esteem, and self-care. When forces bear down on a person, they can feel as if their self is the problem, that they are different or wrong in some way. Barry even confesses to his brother in law, "I don't like myself sometimes," but Barry like many people, puts his faith in the wrong people, the people who already see him in a certain way, who aren't going to change how they perceive him for the better. These people will only ever come at him with judgement. As Barry finds Lena, he finds acceptance. He becomes a person who chooses to be seen for the person he is, not the person who people want him to be. Love is sharing the self, all of the self, with other people and them doing the same in return. It's about being seen. Punch-Drunk Love is at its heart about what it's like to finally be seen.
*I tried really hard to figure out which sister is which, but only Elizabeth has a big enough part to put in the effort.