Saturday, April 26, 2008

Blossoms and Blood

In his recent review of Forgetting Sarah Marshall, David Denby points out the difficulties with tropical-island comedies. "Hawaii is so improbably gorgeous that the very thought of it produces vacation-brochure prose," he writes. "In Hawaiian hotel society, dress is meagre and frequently orange, the drinks wear hats, and the staff collars the guests with wet flowers. Such soft, damp pleasures offer little social structure for comedy to batter against." Denby finishes with a provocative maxim: "Comedy requires clothes."

I think I agree with this assessment, as well as Denby's opinion of most of the movies he cites (except for Joe versus the Volcano, a long-standing guilty pleasure of mine). The one comedy I can think of that has used a tropical atmosphere to great effect is Punch-Drunk Love. Of course I'm cheating a bit with this claim: Hawaii features only as a brief excursion in Punch-Drunk Love; and the movie is a "comedy" only by the broadest definition, since comedy typically requires jokes too.

Punch-Drunk Love, of course, was Paul Thomas Anderson's inimitable foray into screwball farce, and a curious bridge-film between Magnolia and There Will Be Blood. It starred Adam Sandler who, in 2002, was at the height of his popularity; I'll never forget the reaction of the audience during its opening weekend premiere, as they sat in discomfiting silence, desperately over-laughing at the thinnest semblance of a gag, then finally reacting in open revolt. This has been a common response to Anderson's films. For a filmmaker who has repeatedly expressed a desire to make movies that connect with audiences, he has a knack for pissing them off. His movies tend to be long, loud and intensely operatic. Punch-Drunk Love tinkers with this formula in some ways, clocking in at just over 90 minutes and featuring a protagonist, Barry Egan (played by Sandler), whose thoughts and feelings are bottled up, yet emphasized by Jon Brion's nerve-jangling score. Watching the film again the other day, I could see similarities between Anderson and David O. Russell, the director of nervous-breakdown comedies like Flirting with Disaster and I Heart Huckabees. Both use violence, or the threat of it, as a dark undercurrent for much of their humor. Their difference, apart from Anderson being much less of a bully, is that his style is more emotional than cerebral. I've called him the most exasperating great director working today, as I've often had the desire to walk out of his films before finally settling in long enough to love them.

Barry is the modestly successful owner of a warehouse that sells home appliances, yet he's deeply lonely, desperate to connect with every stranger he speaks to on the phone. "Yes, I'm still on hold," are the first words we hear him utter, and a large part of his arrested development, we come to learn, is due to his emasculation by seven sisters who won't let him get in a word edgewise without ridicule. At a birthday party for one of them, Barry explodes, smashing patio-door glass before bursting into tears. (This scene is the closest Anderson gets to a mainstream gag, when Barry asks his brother-in-law, a doctor, for psychiatric help and the latter replies that he's a dentist.) Later, he makes a fateful call to a phone-sex line, more for conversation than arousal, but it backfires when the female operator on the other line threatens him with blackmail. While her boss (regular Anderson player Philip Seymour Hoffman), a "mattress king" from Provo, Utah, sends goons to California to shake Barry down, Barry is simultaneously pursued, far more romantically, by Lena (Emily Watson), a tall, eccentric co-worker of one of his sisters.

The key sequence in Punch-Drunk Love -- the one that eased me into the movie -- comes around the halfway mark, when Barry follows Lena (who goes away on business) to Hawaii. Brion's score silences. Barry's loud blue suit meshes with the ocean backdrop, and he and Lena, away from all threats, see their romance flower. All the demerits that Denby mentions for other films are positives in this one. Anderson's soft, warm palette during this sequence works like a balm, and Barry's transformation into a lover and fighter -- which he carries over to the mainland -- is persuasive. It's only in such an alien environs that Barry and Lena truly feel at home.

There are problems with Punch-Drunk Love. Like Judd Apatow, Anderson hinges his story on the specious premise that a supremely attractive woman would find his oddball male hero desirable. There are suggestions that she too is deeply strange (it took me several viewings to realize that the red-dressed Lena is stalking Barry from a distance in an early scene in a grocery store) but Watson fleshes out Lena more than the script does. Anderson doesn't develop his ideas so much as riff on them: he's a frighteningly talented technical filmmaker who isn't afraid to let his actors take him in unexpected directions. These digressions can try a viewer's patience, mine included; but so far the payoffs have been worth it.

I don't have much more to say about There Will Be Blood, except that an archived post recently received a comment (scroll to the bottom) that deserves a read. The anonymous poster (come up with a name, guys) helpfully compared Daniel Day-Lewis's infamous "napkin scene" in There Will Be Blood to a similar one he did twenty years ago in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which the poster cites to suggest that both Day-Lewis and Anderson were relying on an empty bag of tricks. I'm going to have to see Unbearable Lightness again before I can assess this. But having seen There Will Be Blood for the third time, and the first on DVD, I have no such hesitation. While the cinematography predictably suffers on the small screen, the acting and filmmaking become less imposing, more accessible on a human scale. I love the walk Paul Dano uses for his preacher character; and the much-criticized scene where he lunges at his father across the dinner table makes sense in the form of one of Anderson's riffs, echoing the immediately preceding scene where Plainview rolls Eli around in the mud. As for Day-Lewis, he makes Plainview's slow downward spiral persuasive and compelling every step of the way, unlike Barry Egan, losing or dissolving all his connections with others. As previously mentioned, I've found Anderson wearying at times before, but I think this a great film every step of the way -- and contrary to Armond White and others, the very opposite of an amoral one. How could it be, when the two most vile (yet still complex) characters in the film climax their struggle sealed in what Fernando Croce brilliantly described as a Pharaoh's tomb; while the two most innocent, freed from the clutches of the Plainview and Sunday clans, are afforded a chance at happiness?

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