Punch-Drunk Love is a 2002 romantic black comedy written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. It stars Adam Sandler, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Emily Watson. It features the delightfully idiosyncratic music of Jon Brion and the bright, colourful, abstract visual sequences of artist Jeremy Blake. It is Mark Kermode‘s favourite Anderson film.
Barry Egan (Sandler, in an actually superb performance) is a lonely man with social anxiety and anger issues who becomes a victim of a phone sex extortion racket headed by Dean Trumbell (Hoffman); then he falls in love with Lena Leonard (Watson), who gives him a strength and courage he’s never had before, and he fights back against the extortionists.
Here are some quotes:
Barry: You’re a bad person. You have no right taking people’s confidence in your service. You understand me, sir? You’re sick!
Dean Trumbell: No no, SHUT UP! SHUT THE FUCK UP![Simultaneously]
Barry: You have no right to take people’s trust. [Simultaneously]
Dean Trumbell: SHUT UP! Will You- SHUT UP! SHUT UP! SHUT, SHUT, SHUT, SHUT, SHUT UP! SHUT UP! Now! Are you threatening me, dick?!
Barry: Why don’t you–? You go fuck yourself!
“I didn’t do anything. I’m a nice man. I mind my own business. So you tell me that’s that before I beat the Hell from you.” –Barry, to Dean
“I have so much strength inside of me. You have no idea. I have a love in my life. It makes me stronger than anything you can imagine. I would say “That’s that”, Mattress Man.” –Barry, to Dean
Dean Trumbell: NOW GET THE FUCK OUT OF HERE, PERVERT!
Barry: DIDN’T I WARN YOU?!
Dean Trumbell: That’s that.
“Lena. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry I left you at the hospital. I called a phone-sex line… I called a phone-sex line before I met you, and four blond brothers came after me and they hurt you, and I’m sorry. Then I had to leave again because I wanted to make sure you never got hurt again. And, and I have a lot of puddings, and in six to eight weeks it can be redeemed. So if you could just give me that much time, I think I can get enough mileage to go with you wherever you go if you have to travel for your work. Because I don’t ever want to be anywhere without you. So could you just let me redeem the mileage?” –Barry
“So, here we go.” –Lena, to Barry [last line]
Barry owns a small business selling such novelty items as themed toilet plungers. At the beginning of the film, he’s all alone in his office talking on the telephone with someone working for Healthy Choice about a frequent flyer promotion; later that morning, we’ll see him talking with a client on the phone. (Remember landlines? This film uses phone calls as a recurring motif; it’s a symbol of social alienation, since people communicate this way, but they’re far away from each other–they’re connected, yet they aren’t.)
After his chat with the Healthy Choice guy, Barry steps outside, sees a dramatic car crash (the vehicle smashing and rolling over on the street), then another vehicle is driven to the sidewalk by his place of business, and a harmonium is dropped off there. He takes the instrument into his office, and from time to time we will see him play single-note melodies on it.
The harmonium, a pump organ, vaguely makes one think of a church organ. Since the nervous man’s playing of the instrument in his quiet solitude gives him some peace, we can see its having been given to him as an act of divine grace, which leads me to my next point.
We can see the arrival of Lena into his life, her deliberate leaving of her car with him by his place of business as an excuse to meet him, as also being an act of divine grace, for her love of him saves him from his social anxiety and loneliness, and gives him the strength to fight back against his persecutors. She is thus a kind of female Christ.
Among his persecutors are his seven bitchy sisters. They bully, insult, and emotionally abuse him at every opportunity they are given. When he can’t take it anymore and blows up, they pretend that his problems are exclusively his, and that they share no responsibility at all in provoking him.
I know from personal experience what Barry Egan is going through. An emotionally abusive family, typically headed by one or two parents with narcissistic or other Cluster B personality traits, tend to have golden children (Egan’s sisters, it would seem), invisible children, and scapegoats (Egan himself). The narcissistic parents either connive at or encourage the bullying of the scapegoat, using his or her faults as an excuse to justify the bullying.
The bullying can come in the form of mobbing or in slight digs at the victim, repeated over and over again. This is what Barry’s sisters do to him: swearing at him needlessly; mocking him for saying a perfectly normal word like “chat”; calling him “Gay Boy”; nagging him about and pressuring him into attending a birthday party of one of their sisters; and calling him a “fucking retard” when he finally blows up and breaks windows at the party.
Putting up with sibling bullies is like experiencing Chinese water torture. Each insult, each put-down, each criticism, every one bit of nagging all by itself can be endured; but put them all together, one after the other in rapid succession…drip, drip, drip…and one can’t help but go crazy sooner or later.
This kind of suffering is what Barry has had to endure from his non-empathic sisters; and when he reacts, they pretend to be surprised, when it should be obvious to them that their non-stop provocations are setting off an emotional ticking time bomb.
Barry knows he needs help. He asks Walter the dentist (a husband of one of his sisters, he’s played by Robert Smigel) if he knows any psychotherapists–that’s how desperate Barry is. That his sisters would know about his asking for psychiatric help, and about his breaking down and crying in front of the dentist–these are just more reasons for them to criticize him, instead of showing him some compassion.
He wants to escape. He learns of a promotion to gain thousands of frequent flyer miles if he buys enough pudding from Healthy Choice foods (This is a plot point inspired by David Phillips.). Flying in airplanes…flying in the sky…being in heaven…
This wish to be up in the sky, symbolic of heaven, dovetails with the ‘church’ harmonium and the entrance of Lena into his life. These three strands are full of Christian symbolism, that divine grace Barry has been craving, to have someone take him out of his world of suffering and give him peace and salvation. Lena’s love will give him the strength to go on living.
You see, it is she who approaches him, not the other way around, as is done with traditional sex roles. Thus she is a refreshing feminist change from the usual social requirement that the male always make the first moves.
Also, her approaching him, rather than vice versa, can be seen to symbolize divine grace in that she, as representative of Christ, is coming to him, who is representative of the sinner, rather than the repentant sinner searching for God. Similarly, the harmonium, symbolic of a church organ, is dropped off before him, as if it were a free gift. And the offer of frequent flyer miles, acquired through the buying of packages of cheap pudding, is rather like a free ticket to heaven.
Now, Barry is a sinner…of sorts. Besides his explosive temper tantrums, he has also made use of a phone sex service, though he doesn’t have any lustful thoughts at all as he chats with the lasciviously-tongued woman on the other end of the phone.
As of the phone-sex chat, he hasn’t yet dated and fallen in love with Lena, so he’s using the chat not for prurient purposes, but just to relieve his loneliness. As WRD Fairbairn pointed out, we all are object-seeking in our libido–not seeking of sex objects, not satisfying libido through pleasure-seeking (which Fairbairn considered a failure of object-relationships), but objects as in people with whom to have relationships, friendships, and love. No, just because Barry has called up a phone sex line, it doesn’t make him the “pervert” his four assailants and Dean Trumbell (Hoffman) call him.
Again, his chatting with Anna, the phone-sex girl, is another instance of his alienation, for he wishes to connect with someone (ostensibly in a sexual manner), but without seeing the person face to face; this represents the conflict between wanting to have object relationships and wanting to be separated from people. Hence, the film’s recurring telephone call motif.
Barry is terrified of meeting Lena and of the two of them getting to know each other, because his personality has been so split apart. Having a relationship with her would be what Fairbairn, in the endo-psychic structure he devised to replace Freud‘s id/ego/superego, called the Central Ego (Fairbairn’s replacement of Freud’s ego…Barry in the film) connected with the Ideal Object (Lena).
Instead, Barry’s Libidinal Ego (Fairbairn’s replacement of Freud’s id) tries to connect with the Exciting Object (Anna, the phone-sex girl), and his Anti-libidinal Ego (a bit like Freud’s superego) has to endure the Rejecting Object (his sisters, Dean, and Anna’s four thuggish brothers, who attack and rob Barry). Lena is his cure, his salvation, the one who will help him re-integrate his fragmented self.
Let’s consider her name. Lena has various meanings: “light,” “sunlight,” “moonlight,” “generous,” “kind,” “she who allures,” etc. It is interesting in this connection to remember Jeremy Blake’s video art sequences, with their colourful brightness, their images suggesting, if not explicitly evoking, sunlit horizons of dusk or dawn, starry moonlit nights, rainbows, etc. Lena is the light; she is the way, the truth, and the life, for Barry. Accordingly, Lena often appears surrounded in bright light, and she is typically associated in various ways with light.
Now, when I say she saves him as a female Christ, I don’t mean that she saves him so much in the orthodox Christian sense of her ‘dying for Barry’s sins.’ (Only that scene in which the four brothers smash into Barry’s car, and she has blood dripping from her head–suggestive of Christ’s blood from the crown of thorns–associates her with the orthodox Christ.) I’d say that Lena is more of a Gnostic Christ, saving Barry by giving him gnosis, or a knowledge of his inner divine spark. With this enlightenment, he gains the strength to face his bullies.
He knows her by getting to know her during their dinner date. He knows her in the Biblical sense in her hotel room in Hawaii, their island paradise…the heaven he’s flown to on his first-ever airplane flight. And he knows her in Wilfred Bion‘s sense of gaining knowledge (K) through interpersonal communication, a soothing of his anxieties by her containing of them, etc. (Click here for more information on Bion’s and other psychoanalytical concepts.)
Recall this exchange of lines when they are on the bed in the hotel:
Barry: I’m lookin’ at your face and I just wanna smash it. I just wanna fuckin’ smash it with a sledgehammer and squeeze it. You’re so pretty.
Lena: I want to chew your face, and I want to scoop out your eyes and I want to eat them and chew them and suck on them.
Barry: OK. This is funny. This is nice.
He expresses his love for her with, bizarrely, aggressive and violent language. She speaks of her love for him in a similarly graphic way, though not quite as extreme in its violence. This is her containing his inner rage, which he’s projected onto her, the way a baby might project its agitation onto its mother, who would then contain it and return it to the baby in a tolerable form. Lena is, through her capacity for reverie, playing the role of mother, soothing his rage and returning his feelings to him–he being in the role of infant–in a pacified form.
This kind of soothing and acceptance is what he has needed his whole life: not to be called a “fucking retard” for getting angry, but to have his rage contained, soothed, and forgiven, like Christ forgiving us for our sins. Accordingly, Barry confesses having busted up the restaurant bathroom, apologizes, and she accepts him all the same. He later apologizes for having left her in the hospital, and for his using the phone sex service, which has led to her injury.
He says “sorry” a lot in the film. He repents; she forgives.
Her loving him as he is, with all of his faults, gives him the self-love and strength he needs to face his troubles. He thus grows in Bion’s K, or in Christ’s gnosis…whichever metaphor you prefer.
Emily Watson is a British actress, and she makes no effort to hide her accent with an American one in her portrayal of Lena; so this means that Lena is an angel of the land of the Angles, another association of her with heaven. Her job involves her often going by airplane, so she flies in heaven like an angel.
Barry has seven sisters, their nastiness to him (indicative of such things as pride and anger) associating them with the seven deadly sins, as well as the seven days of the Creation, this being a creation not by the Biblical God, but by the Demiurge, whom the Gnostic Christians deemed evil for having created the physical world, which engenders sinful desires.
Barry’s other persecutors–those four blond young men who assault and steal from him–may not be his brothers, but they are brothers all the same, so with them we can extend the association, if only symbolically, of his bullying problems with his sisters. Barry shows no sexual interest with the phone sex girl, so the brothers’ calling him a “pervert” is a projection of their own sinfulness, of lust; thus we see here more of an association of sin with siblings, his and the four brothers.
Conflict and sin among siblings is a recurring theme throughout Genesis: between Cain and Abel; between Shem and Japheth, on the one side, and Ham, who shamed their father, Noah, on the other; between Esau and Jacob; Lot’s daughters, the sisters who got him drunk, then seduced him to get them pregnant; and Joseph’s envious brothers, who had him sold into slavery. Brothers and sisters are wicked in this film, where a sinful, fleshly, Demiurge-created, Old Testament-like world can be redeemed only through the light of gnosis, of spiritual knowledge.
Elsewhere, some people have made connections between Barry and Superman, though I find their linking of the two characters to be mostly tenuous, at best. A better link with a strongman would be between Barry and Popeye, if only through the use of the song, “He Needs Me,” originally sung by Shelley Duvall as Olive Oyl. Popeye needs her, just as he needs his spinach to be strong. Barry needs Lena, just as he needs to redeem his Healthy Choice products (with green on the cover designs, a colour better associated with spinach than with…Kryptonite?) to join her on airplane flights.
The only legitimate link I can find between this film and Superman is at the end, when Lena, dressed in red, stands behind seated Barry, always in that blue suit, and puts her arms around him, making herself into his ‘Superman cape.’ But even this moment must be seen in its proper context. Barry alone isn’t Superman; he is brave and strong only with her there. He needs her, as Popeye needs Olive Oyl. Furthermore, in that scene, Barry is playing the harmonium, as if playing a church hymn. He is Lena’s Church; her love for him is like Christ’s love for His Church.
Superman may need Lois Lane’s love, and he’d be heartbroken if she died, but he doesn’t need her to give him his powers. Lena, however, does give Barry his strength; this is why a comparison of her to a Gnostic Christ makes so much more sense. She, Lena the light, gives him the enlightenment, the gnosis, that he needs.
She gives him the punch he needs to face his abusers. Her love makes him drunk with joy; she is his sacramental wine, as it were, so his Church is a midway point between Gnosticism and Catholic orthodoxy. Her blood, on her head from that car collision, is his wine, pushing him, in his drunken love, to punch the first of the brothers, and beat and threaten the others.
She is the grace, with the harmonium and the frequent flyer miles (which he must redeem, as Christ redeems the faithful Christian believer), that comes to him, lifts him out of his despair, strengthens him, and saves him.