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Arts and Entertainment

This 2002 Adam Sandler Film Is The Most Romantic Movie About Modern Los Angeles

Emily Watson and Adam Sandler in 'Punch-Drunk Love' (Courtesy of the Criterion Collection)
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Cut off from downtown, Hollywood, and the beaches by a wall of mountains, the San Fernando Valley is a landscape of tract housing, anonymous business parks and freeways. In other words, it's a suburban expanse that's alien to the Los Angeles glamorized in the popular consciousness. But in Paul Thomas Anderson's Punch-Drunk Love, the Valley has never felt more romantic and alive.

This isn't the Los Angeles of La La Land, where Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone cavort on the Santa Monica Pier or kiss on Angels Flight (pure fiction, as the funicular has been closed for three years). Anderson draws the spectacular out of the mundane. The squealing brakes of a passing truck on Lankershim Boulevard sings along to the film's theme. L.A.'s light—both the hazy sunlight and the nocturnal glow of street lamps—diffracts into impressionistic hues of blue and red. A 99 Cents Only Store boasts an orderly, kaleidoscopic array of colors.

The Valley has long been home for Anderson and, as Molly Lambert chronicled in a piece for Grantland (R.I.P.), it's a place he clearly loves.

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Coming off two sprawling and expansive films about the interconnected lives of multiple Angelenos (1997's Boogie Nights and 1999's Magnolia), Anderson surprised the greater film world with his next project: an Adam Sandler romantic comedy. Before Punch-Drunk Love, Sandler had yet to be taken 'seriously' by the community of critics. At that point, he was "Opera Man" on SNL and the infantile star of Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore. But Anderson professed his love of Sandler's comedies (who doesn't laugh at "The Price is Wrong, bitch"?), and tapped into Sandler's man-child persona for Punch-Drunk Love.

Sandler plays Barry Egan, a moderately-successful entrepreneur from Sherman Oaks who makes his living selling novelty toilet plungers. Through the entire run of this 95-minute film he dons a deep blue suit, which belies his emotional immaturity. He pursues and is pursued by Lena Leonard (Emily Watson), a friend of one of his seven overbearing sisters. An alternately whimsical and twisted plotline sends Barry into a dark hole when he calls a phone sex line on a lonely night, which leads to him getting scammed by four brothers who are led by a furniture salesman in Utah (the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman). Barry's hobby—which he uses as an emotional escape—involves a scheme in which he trades in the UPC codes from pudding cups to get airline miles (cribbed from real life).

Anderson says he structured Punch-Drunk Love on the classic MGM musicals—what musical doesn't have a patently silly plot? But never once in the film do any of the characters break into song-and-dance. Instead, it's the lived-in environment of the Valley and the bleak spaces from which the characters inhabit that come to life. Gags lifted straight out of a Jacques Tati film, like a collapsing chair or a runaway forklift, ambush Barry at his plunger warehouse. Dashes of color, like Barry's suit or Lena's red dress (both lifted from Godard's A Woman is a Woman) simply pop out amidst the drab milieu of the Valley. The fantastic comes to the fore through Jon Brion's score and the surreal visual art of the late Jeremy Blake, which serve as interludes between the film's acts.

About that blue suit: Punch-Drunk Love finally comes to us in a long-overdue Blu-ray release, courtesy of the boutique Criterion Collection label. Barry's suit is blue, blue, blue on the HD digital transfer, supervised by Anderson himself. The release also includes all of same bonus features from the previous DVD release (like the Blossoms & Blood short and the hilarious "Mattress Man" commercial), but includes some new goodies, including a 27-minute interview with Jon Brion about the film's score, a 9-minute video of the recording of the soundtrack at Abbey Road Studios, a short feature on Blake's art, and an NBC interview with the real-life "Pudding Guy." The booklet features an essay written by filmmaker and artist Miranda July, written in her uniquely-Miranda July voice.

Adam Sandler in 'Punch-Drunk Love' (Courtesy of the Criterion Collection)

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