Criterion Corner: Blu Reviewed: Punch-Drunk Love (2002) - Reviewed

My first experience of a Paul Thomas Anderson film on the big screen was this one and I’ll never forget how spellbound I was by his lush Panavision visuals, his atonal and often unnerving soundtrack, his uncompromising approach to the nonjudgmental character study and his ability to make relatable even the most intolerable of characters.  In the back of the theater showing arguably the great director’s one meta effort in his oeuvre I could hear the disappointed grumblings of Adam Sandler fans who bought a ticket to something so inherently director driven as opposed to star driven that they couldn’t help but abandon their seats.  The so-called Adam Sandler movie and the legion of dedicated followers of his Happy Madison bro comedies didn’t know how to take the Best Director winner of the 2002 Cannes Film Festival, many of whom still don’t.  That this transitional work functioning as an answer to the Happy Madison movies was followed up by the fearsome Academy Award winner There Will Be Blood only serves to cement the director’s status as the most chameleonic master of the cinematic medium since Stanley Kubrick. Unfortunately it came and went with only staunch cinephiles being among the admirers before quietly leaving theaters and hitting DVD in a director-approved two-disc special edition.  In the years since however, it is regarded as a modestly scaled masterpiece in a oeuvre dominated by towering achievements, making it the one true lark of Paul Thomas Anderson’s illustrious career.  If nothing else, it will be remembered as the film that got Daniel-Day Lewis to accept the part of Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood.  Years after the Boogie Nights laserdisc, being the one time the director worked with The Criterion Collection, the long awaited high-definition release of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love has officially become the second collaboration with Criterion in a newly restored transfer supervised by the director as well as porting over all the extras from the two-disc DVD as well as a wealth of new extras including the Cannes Film Festival press conference.  After over ten years of waiting, Punch-Drunk Love gets the elite special edition treatment.  Was it worth the wait?

The Video

Touting a newly restored high-definition digital transfer supervised by Paul Thomas Anderson, Punch-Drunk Love comes to blu-ray looking brighter and sharper than usual while still retaining the undeniably filmic look it had in theaters.  Having seen the film twice during its initial 35mm run, the noticeable image flickering, lens flares, intentional smearing and blurring of the focus in particular shots all have been retained in this very organic looking master.  With exception to The Master, director of photography Robert Elswit has shot every one of PTA’s movies and the results here are of course enormously impressive.  Color is key here with the color blue being primarily focused on Adam Sandler’s suit and red on Emily Watson’s dress and the color transitions by late artist Jeremy Blake have never looked more brilliant than they do here.  Granted the two-disc Superbit DVD back in the day was a robust disc, but Criterion more than outdoes that disc in the image department.  Impeccable work, Criterion!

The Audio

Previously available in Dolby Digital 5.1 EX and DTS 5.1 surround, this new DTS-HD 5.1 surround soundtrack renders Jon Brion’s anxious percussion filled score beautifully with thundering bass and aggressive use of the surround channels.  Some of the tensest moments in the film are driven entirely by Brion’s music, with some of the more unnerving moments played backwards ala Angelo Badalamenti’s score for Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me.  As with Magnolia and There Will Be Blood, sound ranges from pin drop quiet to a near volcanic explosion erupting almost out of nowhere, startling viewers even more so than traditional jump scares in horror movies.  The opening sequence for instance of a minivan rolling over with broken glass goes from dead silence to all the channels roaring to life, echoing later scenes where Adam Sandler seems stable before abruptly smashing sliding glass doors and windows which are as startling to hear on loudspeakers as it is for the characters in the movie.  Punch-Drunk Love wouldn’t be the sublime listening experience it is without Jon Brion’s re-rendering of Harry Nilsson’s He Needs Me sung by Shelley Duvall from the soundtrack to Robert Altman’s Popeye.  While obviously taken from another source, He Needs Me with Jon Brion’s own augmentation becomes the central theme for Punch-Drunk Love, imbuing Sandler’s difficult and hostile misfit with heart and a sense of hope for a happier life.  All in all, the disc sounds great!

The Extras

Nearly all of the extras from the two-disc DVD have been ported over to the Criterion edition, including the Mattress Man commercial, the twelve scopitones created by Jeremy Blake, deleted scenes and trailers.  New to this blu-ray edition, however, is the complete Cannes Film Festival press conference as well as additional interviews conducted at Cannes, new interviews with Jon Brion on the soundtrack as well as a behind-the-scenes look at the recording of the score and an NBC news interview with David Phillips, the man who inspired the ‘pudding’ plot thread in the film.  Also new to this edition are interviews with art curators Michael Connor and Lia Gangitano regarding the scopitones created by Jeremy Blake.  While missing a director commentary, after people started quoting the commentary PTA did for Boogie Nights (often to PTA’s face), he swore off the practice of recording commentaries completely.  Can you blame him?  Where the DVD kept PTA in the background with little to nothing in the way of behind-the-scenes material, the press conference at Cannes features the director heavily as well as sharing words with Sandler on how the unique project came to be and what it represented for Sandler’s career.  Most of what’s here is stuff we’ve seen before but the new contents are a welcome addition and round out the extras for this set as hefty and comprehensive.

Final Verdict

The long awaited blu-ray debut of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love is finally here and Criterion has delivered a solid home video package with excellent video, audio and extras.  The true definition of oddball quirk with a very raw and real emotional underpinning, PTA’s one lark is a sweet and inspired romantic comedy that at once comments on the Adam Sandler Happy Madison picture as well as offering its own misfit worldview on the power of love.  As a work of pure cinema, it’s a film buff’s dream come true and despite Sandler’s own later dabbling in drama with Spanglish and Reign Over Me, Punch-Drunk Love is undeniably his finest performance as an actor to date.  Though some of the supplemental features on this edition are merely duplicated from the DVD release, overall this is a solid package I will watch time and time again and remains a real treat to see and hear!


- Andrew Kotwicki