In the spring of 1999, California civil engineer David Phillips found a loophole in the air miles promotion being sponsored by Healthy Choice foods and American Airlines-- for every 10 UPC labels from Healthy Choice products mailed in, the consumer would receive 1000 air miles. Philips went through the entire Healthy Choice product line and found he could get the most 'bang for his buck' with chocolate pudding cups. With each pack of four cups retailing for $1 at a local discount grocery chain and every cup labeled with its own UPC label, a very small investment in pudding would translate into thousands of air miles. With the help of his family, Philips loaded up his minivan with Healthy Choice pudding. He also availed himself of the services of a local food bank, which provided assistance in tearing off the UPC labels in return for the donation of the pudding. In the end, Phillips' efforts netted him 1.25 million air miles, enough free mileage for 50 roundtrips within the United States or 31 trips to Europe, and made him an American Airlines Advantage Gold member for life. And because of his donation to the food bank, he also received an $815 taxable deduction. When word of his successful exploitation of the Healthy Choice promotion caught wind of the media, Phillips became forever known as the 'Pudding Guy'.
Among the millions of Americans who heard about the exploits of the 'Pudding Guy' was "Magnolia" director Paul Thomas Anderson, who took the concept to heart and spun a romantic comedy around it. And thus, "Punch-Drunk Love" was conceived, an unpredictable and off-the-wall entry into the romantic-comedy genre in the spirit of Jean-Pierre Jeunet's "Amelie (Le Fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain)"-- not to mention the best film starring Adam Sandler (seen recently in "Mr. Deeds")... ever.
Sandler is cast in the lead role as Barry Egan. Though Barry is moderately successful running a small business that specializes in novelty toilet plungers and seems to be an affable fellow, his calm and conservative exterior hides some deep-seated anger. Having grown up in a household with seven sisters, he finds himself constantly henpecked by them as they call him on the phone throughout the day and belittle him during family get-togethers. Unfortunately, Barry does not take people nosing into his business or criticizing him very well, and his pent-up anger often explodes in violent rage, such as the smashing of windows. Furthermore, with his self-esteem being almost non-existent, he mostly keeps to himself, shuffling between work and his small house.
Then, like a breath of fresh air, Lena Leonard (Emily Watson, seen recently in "Red Dragon") enters Barry's life. Like Barry, Lena is also on the shy side, though she manages to gather up enough courage to ask him out to dinner. Barry and Lena go out to a nice restaurant and though they end up being asked to leave after Barry trashes the washroom, they click.
Unfortunately, there are some things in Barry's life that could derail this budding romance. In addition to his uncontrollable temper, Barry is facing extortion by a phone sex operator (Ashley Clark of "Evolution") and her unscrupulous boss (Philip Seymour Hoffman, also of "Red Dragon"), who have sent 'four blond brothers' to beat the money out of him. When Lena declares that she will be on a business trip in Hawaii over the next few days, Barry decides to join her. The only problems are that he has little spare cash for a ticket and he has never been on an airplane in his life. However, while at the local supermarket, he spies the Healthy Choice promotion for air miles, and concocts a plan to join his newfound love in Hawaii.
"Punch-Drunk Love" is a bit of a departure for both Anderson and Sandler. Anderson, usually known for his three-hour long opuses, such as "Boogie Nights" and "Magnolia", delivers a short-and-sweet romantic comedy that clocks in at just over an hour-and-a-half. And though it is a typical 'boy meets girl' story, Anderson throws in his usual off-the-wall touches, black humor, and penchant for creating memorable scenes. For example, the film opens up with an almost surreal scene in which Barry witnesses a spectacular car crash and has a harmonium dropped off on the sidewalk in front of him. Another scene has a lonely Barry calling up a vulgar phone sex operator for mere conversation. And when Lena and Barry are reunited in Hawaii, their silhouettes unforgettably intermingle with the shadows of brisk passersby. Anderson also makes good use of the film's soundtrack, which constantly reflects Barry's state of mind-- dystonic percussion that rises in volume as Barry's stress level goes up and melodic love songs when he is in Lena's presence. "Punch-Drunk Love" may be half the length of "Magnolia", but Anderson packs in just as much cerebral and visceral enlightenment.
However, the most remarkable departure from the norm would be Sandler's portrayal of the troubled Barry. While fans of Anderson's films would normally be turned off by the boorish and juvenile antics in a typical Sandler comedy, Anderson brings the best out of the actor, taking his usual low-brow gags and focusing them into a carefully constructed character study of a well-intentioned man saddled with severe emotional problems, and who is unable to express how he truly feels, as he sees it to be a sign of weakness. Though Sandler does do a lot of strange things and yelling in "Punch-Drunk Love", they are a symptom of his malaise, instead of some cheap laughs being dictated by the screenplay. Other than "The Wedding Singer", Sandler has never been more sympathetic and believable as he is here.
Supporting Sandler is a warm and charismatic turn by Watson. Though her character does get shortchanged by the overriding focus on Barry and it is not quite clear what she sees in him, her chemistry with Sandler is undeniable, and their scenes together are the highlight of the film. Also on hand is Anderson-regular Luis Guzman as Barry's business partner, Hoffman going over-the-top as the ruthless proprietor of a phone-sex operation, and Mary Lynn Rajskub as one of Barry's neurotic sisters.
With great direction, terrific performances, and a story full of unexpected turns, it is of little surprise that during the 2002 Cannes Film Festival, "Punch-Drunk Love" earned Anderson a Best Director award. Like "Amelie", "Punch-Drunk Love" takes the romantic-comedy in new and unexpected directions and it is yet another tour de force that showcases Anderson's skill behind the camera. And with an unforgettable performance by Sandler, no film eloquently expresses true love with one million air miles better than this one.