“I have a love in my life. It makes me stronger than anything you can imagine.”
Well, it’s official. Adam Sandler is now in the Criterion Collection.
Not just any Adam Sandler movie, of course. His Happy Madison comedies will have to wait a few more years before joining the ranks of the classic and foreign films that make up home video’s most prestigious brand (“Little Nicky was robbed!” – probably no one), but for now Sandler’s first foray into the Criterion Collection is in the great Punch-Drunk Love, the fourth film from writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson. This isn’t just “an Adam Sandler movie.” This is the ultimate Adam Sandler movie — one written specifically for him, tailor made to his strengths and the best use of his onscreen persona ever committed to film. I can’t imagine he’s ever going to be better than he is here.
Sandler plays Barry Egan, a lonely single guy from a family of seven sisters, all of whom have strong opinions on what he should be doing and how he should be living. He begins to call a phone sex line to have someone to talk to, but they start blackmailing him for more and more money. At the same time, Barry is taking advantage of a pudding cup promotion after discovering a loophole that will give him thousands of free airline miles if he buys a bunch of pudding. The various plot threads all come together when Barry is set up on a date with Lena Leonard (Emily Watson, War Horse), whose own oddness matches his own and with whom he falls immediately in love. Barry uses his miles to follow Lena to Hawaii, where she is visiting on business, but their affair is cut short by the reappearance of some goons working for the phone sex line. What they don’t count on is that now Barry has a love in his life. That makes him strong.
After exploding into the ‘90s with a coupe of increasingly ambitious, sprawling character epics (namely Boogie Nights and Magnolia), Paul Thomas Anderson dialed things way back for Punch-Drunk Love (and was awarded Best Director at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival for his efforts). It’s a smaller, more intimate movie that’s also much more idiosyncratic than the work that preceded it; in that way, this is really the movie that launched the next phase of Anderson’s career — one that’s more eccentric and less interested in conventional narratives. Like several of his films to follow, Punch-Drunk Love reproduces the characters perspective not just through the story being told but through the actual formalist filmmaking. It is disorienting and anxiety-inducing while at the same time beautiful and nakedly sincere. PTA has made some incredibly emotional films (*cough* Magnolia), but never one this sweet.
What makes Punch-Drunk Love one of the most romantic movies of the last 20 years is that it is more than a movie that simply depicts characters in love — it’s a movie that captures what it feels like to fall in love. It may not exactly resemble your own experiences falling in love because there’s a touch of madness to it, too. But let’s be honest: isn’t there always? The swelling of strings on the soundtrack, the way the images sometimes give way to brilliant swatches of color. It’s a fever dream of romance — an external expression of everything Barry cannot find the words to say. This is where Sandler’s casting and subsequent performance are so inspired: PTA taps into the rage and frustration that are always boiling just below the comedian’s surface, emphasizing the “man child” aspects of Sandler’s comic persona and finding some sort of organic reason for him to behave that way. It is the perfect marriage of performer and part.
Though this isn’t the first PTA movie to join the Criterion Collection (the company put out Boogie Nights back in the laserdisc days), this is the first PTA Criterion Blu-ray. Not surprisingly, it looks flawless. The director supervised the 1080p HD transfer, which perfectly captures the sun-soaked drabness of industrial Los Angeles and then explodes with vivid color when the moment calls for it. Detail is excellent and image stability is never an issue. The lossless 5.1 audio track has its ups and downs by design; there are long stretches of quiet punctuated by something explosively loud, whether it’s a car accident or just the roar of a truck racing by. Criterion’s Blu-ray reproduces the volatile unpredictability of Anderson’s sonic palette exactly as it ought to be.
Many of the extras included on Criterion’s release have been carried over from the original Sony special edition DVD: a short film/highlight reel called “Blossoms and Blood,” a very funny fake commercial for Mattress Man starring the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman (featuring a stunt that still makes me laugh harder than most things), a collection of “scopitones” (the colorful designs that appear throughout the movie, cut together with clips and music), a slideshow of Jeremy Blake’s artwork, two deleted scenes and a couple of trailers. While PTA is mostly missing from even Criterion’s new supplements, he can be seen and heard in footage from both a press conference and some interviews recorded during the 2002 Cannes Film Festival. Composer Jon Brion and artist Jeremy Blake both sit down for brand new interviews, discussing their contributions to the film; Brion can also be seen at work in about 10 minutes of archival footage of his recording of the movie’s score, which is gorgeous and wonderful. Rounding out the supplemental section is an interview with David Phillips, the real-life inspiration for Barry Egan’s pudding scheme.
It’s pointless to even try ranking Punch-Drunk Love within PTA’s filmography, as he’s made too many good-to-great movies at this point to even bother. It isn’t just unlike every other movie in the director’s body of work; it’s unlike every other movie period. The extras may not warrant an upgrade for those who already own the DVD, the video and audio are so good that any fan of PTA or Punch-Drunk Love should make the leap to Blu-ray. After all, loving something means always having to take a leap.