August 19, 2012 by MK
“I don’t know if there is anything wrong because I don’t know how other people are.”
In honor of the recently, surprisingly seen, The Master, I figured it might make sense to take a look at its bizarro counterpart in the Paul Thomas Anderson oeuvre, Punch-Drunk Love.
It’s been 10 years since Anderson released his 90-minute version of a romantic comedy, and there are many facets that surprise a decade later. Some that even relate quite well to The Master.
First and foremost, Adam Sandler is even more of a revelation here than he was in 2002. Now that we have a fuller career to put into context, it’s kind of astonishing to watch him dig deep and take a left turn after years of dreck like Jack & Jill and Grown-Ups. It’s even more apparent now how much Anderson was able to get out of him and, unfortunately, we may never see this side of Sandler again.
Many critics made comparisons to Kubrick after There Will Be Blood cut such a fierce imprint in 2007, but the signs were actually there in Punch-Drunk Love. After all, what could be more of a 2001-style monolith than the harmonium that poetically drives much of the movie. Delivered from the heavens (or random truck) at the beginning of the film, it serves as an invitation for Barry to start living life in an unchained, unexpected way. The harmonium is a way out from all the lying, self-destruction and doubt. In short, it’s music. The end of the film finds Barry finally playing the right notes on the instrument, which, when you think about it, is the most romantic, idealistic, straight-up positive scene Anderson has ever filmed. This guy created Daniel Plainview?
At one point, Barry pets the keys of the harmonium, almost to give him the strength to continue. What music is playing in the background? “He Needs Me”. From Popeye. A cartoon character that comes to life when given strength. Barry Egan, meet your cartoon-world doppelganger. Also fitting since one of Anderson’s heroes, Robert Altman, made the movie version back in 1980. Everyone needs to find their own version of spinach and for Barry, it’s the instrument that buoys him.
“I have so much strength in me, you have no idea. I have a love in my life. It makes me stronger than anything you can imagine.”
It’s after this moment that we finally see Barry stand up for himself and get Lena’s phone number from one of his seven overbearing sisters. In spite of everything in his way, self-created or not, you get the sense that Barry is searching for a way out, a trait he shares in common with The Master‘s Freddie Quell. But whereas Freddie is hindered by his big chance with “the Master”, Barry is able to find salvation through the luck of, what else, pudding. By showing us that something so trivial can lead to salvation, Anderson shows a decidedly romantic outlook. Ten years later in The Master, this outlook is obfuscated by doubt and cynicism. In retrospect, PDL seems like a last gasp of idealism, before it’s extinguished by the likes of Daniel Plainview and Lancaster Dodd.
As I stated in my review of The Master, Freddie Quell and Barry Egan are funhouse mirror versions of one another; two men dealing with rage and aimlessness. Barry Egan is Freddie Quell in an alternate universe, where dreams come true. Freddie Quell is the Barry Egan of an underworld in which the hand-up you’re offered is coated in snake-oil. To put it in cartoon terms, if Barry Egan is Popeye then Freddie Quell is Wile E. Coyote.
“There but for the grace of God (or The Master), go I.”