Somewhere, nowhere in Los Angeles. A man, alone. He's scared. He's under pressure. He's up early. We see him sitting at a table. Standing in a yard. On an empty street. There's space everywhere. Yelling. Stink. Trucks. Supermarkets. And there's this woman; she wants something from him. He thinks: Can't be. No woman really wants to be with me. But she's serious. And when others try to trick him, he fights back because the woman gives him strength.
The man doesn't remember his dreams anymore and hardly himself, either. But he does know desire, fear, hate; and he wants love, music, color. And the woman.
The man's name is Barry Egan. He's an American, lives in the San Fernando Valley, is in his mid-30s and runs a company that delivers things to hotels like unbreakable gum dispensers. They stack up there in the storage room, a gray concrete building painted over with a single color, blue, like Barry's suit. The company makes a little money but not much sense. Barry sits in the bare rooms and waits for something to happen.
And then it happens. If you like, the usual: Love, danger, gangsters, romance, suspense, happy end. After all, this is the movies.
A stab at the story: Alone, Barry (Adam Sandler) punches his way through that strength-draining swath of time known as "adult life." Throughout his barren days, he has no sense of time. It just passes. The nights, too: Lights off, lights on. Sometimes he makes a call and gets connected to the voice of a woman who wants to know if he's lying in bed naked.
Barry's life isn't really happening; it just appears that way.
Then he stumbles into a trap set by people who steal from telephone sex customers. And the next day, Lena (Emily Watson) appears and tries to get him to go out with her. After so many years of uneventful living, this is simply too much at once.
Barry, who's never had much experience in matters of love or crime, sees these two stories moving towards each other, about to collide. But contrary to expectations, this is Barry's chance: He wakes from his rickety paralysis. Determined and with surprising fearlessness, he makes sure the con artists leave him alone and decides to go for love.
Roughly, that's the narrative substance of this film. But just to be clear right off, Punch-Drunk Love, the new film by the 33-year-old American director Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia) doesn't really tell this story. Instead, it's constantly lobbing obstacles in its own path. Which makes watching it all the more exciting.
The film comes off like a nervous hound dog sniffing out moments that have nothing to do with the plot: Moments in which Barry Egan, the person, which the film tries to comprehend, becomes visible from the inside out.
For example, when Barry visits his family (seven sisters, plus their families) and experiences this ritual as nothing other than an unbroken chain of stress-inducing moments. A horde of laughing, sneering Californians who unabashedly put their well-trained self-consciousnesses on display (or simply imitate them). The pressure with which each of them applies to his or her role is violently released by Barry: When, for instance, he smashes windows in front of the entire family.
When Barry cries, he doesn't know why. It erupts from him - and seems, at the same time, as if it were happening on command or as if it were premeditated. As happens so often in this film, you have to laugh all but arbitrarily at the absurdity of the situation, at the touching vehemence with which Sandler wrenches its seriousness from it.
Is Barry crying now because he's truly desperate or because he knows that one cries when one feels the way he does? Is it an impulse or an idea? Does he still have direct access to his mood swings, are they in touch with his consciousness?
What this film manages to pull off lies in the far-reaching conclusions it draws from these microscopic social miniatures: Barry is an American, and so, he lives in a system that unswervingly tries to reproduce its own image and which leaves little room for individual quirks.
That's what's being dealt with in Punch-Drunk Love, a film that comes at you like a tender, odd, harmless comedy but with a dark, sad, angry heart: It tells of a country that enforces thought and behavior patterns on its citizens, thereby cutting them off from their emotional and analytical connections to themselves, placing them under so much pressure that they either break or give up.
Michael Moore's Academy Award-winning documentary Bowling for Columbine conjures an image of the US in which the principle of fear is willfully applied in the media as well as in the concrete business of everyday political life to the individual in order to steer him clear of critical, controversial, dialectic thought processes.
With an allusion to Aldous Huxley, the outline of a social blueprint emerges in which original thinking is ghettoized, eventually to be done away with entirely. While polemics are hurled at other fundamentalist state systems, Moore observes, a mainstream machine, just as subtle as it is brutal, prospers at home (as the need arises), driven by the engine of fear.
Moore's pointed description of a networking between the media and the state, industry and politics, laying a finely woven net of factors of intimidation over the continent acts as a kaleidoscopic counterpart to Punch-Drunk Love. In place of Moore's socially analytic overview, Anderson's film offers the psychogram of an individual flapping like a fish in the net of the system - but who also manages to tear a hole in it. By falling in love - and being loved.
Nothing really works anymore. But love.