Quick Reviews: Punch-Drunk Love and Beginners

Punch-Drunk Love Review Beginners Review

Up Today: Punch-Drunk Love (2002) and Beginners (2010)

Quick Take: Punch-Drunk Love is a well-paced, well-shot, and well-acted film that succeeds in presenting a strange, humorous, and emotionally affecting romance that feels familiar without ever being anything but itself. Another film with personality, Beginners is a touching and, at times, devastating film that focuses on loss, love, emotion, and memory; though it may be a bit too “quirky'” for some, it’s incredibly honest and sincere at heart.

Punch-Drunk Love (2002)
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

Anyone who has followed this blog for a while probably knows that I am fan of Paul Thomas Anderson. There Will Be Blood is one of my favorite movies, my first real post on this blog was about the frogs in Magnolia, and I posted a review of Inherent Vice back in January. And yet, until recently, I had never seen Punch-Drunk Love (I still haven’t seen Boogie Nights or Hard Eight, but that’s another matter). I didn’t see my first PTA movie (There Will Be Blood) until 2011 or so (I’m a late bloomer sorry), so a simple lack of time since becoming aware of PTA’s work is one of the things that has kept me from getting to Punch-Drunk Love. The other is Adam Sandler.

I am told that Adam Sandler has his fans. Personally, I’ve never been able to stand the guy. My dislike for Sandler is less about the fact that most of his films don’t appeal to me on any level than it is about the fact that watching him perform makes me genuinely uncomfortable (there’s just something embarrassing about watching him do whatever it is he does). Worried that I would be rendered similarly uncomfortable by Punch-Drunk Love, I allowed it to sit, untouched in my Netflix queue for some time. Now that I’ve actually watched the film, I can say quite confidently that I was right to suspect that Sandler’s presence in the film would cause me a certain level of discomfort. However, I was wrong to worry that such discomfort would in any way hinder the success of the film. In Punch-Drunk Love, Sandler is still Sandler (albeit with the cheese and goofiness turned down a bit), but under PTA’s direction, that turns out to be a surprisingly good thing.

Sandler’s portrayal of the quiet, awkward, pathetic, and strangely dangerous Barry Egan is central to the success of the film, but his is not the only noteworthy performance in it. As Barry’s love interest Lena, Emily Watson also does great work. She is wonderful here, and—though Lena may be just as strange as Barry beneath the surface—her sweet and graceful presence helps to ground the film while giving Barry a means by which to come by some sort of redemption. Though their parts are much smaller than Sandler and Watson’s, Mary Lynn Rajskub (as one of Barry’s seven overbearing sisters) and Philip Seymour Hoffman (as a “mattress man” who attempts to use his phone sex operation to extort Barry) are also quite good, and both manage to make quite the impression despite their limited screen time.

In addition to being well-acted, Punch-Drunk Love is also well-shot. As in so many other films (the most recent of which is Nightcrawler), Robert Elswit demonstrates an undeniable talent for using the camera to notably enhance the material he is given. Together, he and Anderson make a number of creative choices that infuse the film with a boldness and with a personality all its own. In many ways, Punch-Drunk Love is a little odd, but it is also beautifully itself. At times, it teeters on the edge of the surreal, but it never quite leaves the realms of reality. And while it’s possible that some viewers may find some of Elswit and Anderson’s work a little too esoteric, there is something so effortless about the film that I am hard-pressed to agree with them. After all, a film is much more than the sum of its parts, and what a work of cinema makes you feel and the impression that it leaves are more important than whether or not each plot point and shot has a clear and concrete purpose.

Personally, my most favorite aspect of Punch-Drunk Love is its score. Like Barry, there is something a little off about the music in the film, which oscillates between feelings and, in doing so, captures (and indeed, creates) the overall mood of Punch-Drunk Love quite wonderfully. In several scenes (and most notably in the one where Barry’s sister comes to the warehouse where he works) the score works to make viewers feel what Barry feels; whether it’s working to instill a sense overwhelming agitation or of romantic sentimentality, the music in Punch-Drunk Love works to put audiences in Barry’s tumultuous head space. In doing so, it also helps viewers to sympathize with the film’s troubled protagonist. 

For all its strengths, Punch-Drunk Love does have its problems. One of the most noticeable is a certain underdevelopment of the relationship and chemistry between Barry and Lena. While Watson’s acting and the story make it clear that Lena cares for Barry, viewers are given no real reason why she should fall for someone like him. Maybe that’s the point. Maybe romance to Anderson doesn’t need to be logical. Even so, it does need to be believable. This small problem of believability is related to the fact that, in a number of ways, Barry seems pretty hard to love (especially if you aren’t particularly close to him already). As much as I enjoyed Punch-Drunk Love, I can’t help but wonder if Barry is just another in a long line of white male protagonists who gets the girl, not because he should, but because the white male who wrote the film wants him to.
Get Punch-Drunk Love on DVD.

Beginners (2010)
Directed by Mike Mills

In Beginners, Mike Mills tells a story that, though it focuses on a small handful of people, spans generations and decades. The passage of time is very much a reality in the film—it is a thing that shapes, burdens, frees, ruins, and distorts. It is a thing that cannot be escaped. Like love (something Beginners is quite focused on), history and the passage of time are terrifying and exhilarating all at once. As destructive as they can be, there is no worthwhile life without them; for this reason alone, they are something worth paying attention to. In fact, it may even be some knowledge of this fact that leads Oliver (Ewan McGregor) to graffiti his bits of “historical consciousness” on city buildings.

With the film’s acute awareness of time comes a similarly clear interest in memory. The film is comprised of three timelines, which are elegantly intertwined. These are Oliver’s childhood (much of which was spent with his mother), the time between the death of Oliver’s mother (Mary Page Keller) and the death of his father Hal (Christopher Plummer), and the time after the death of his father, when he develops a relationship with Anna (Melanie Laurent). Because it is presented in this way, a great deal of what appears in Beginners could be called a “flashback,” and flashbacks are tricky creatures. As Oliver’s admission that he always remembers his gay father coming out to him in a purple shirt (in reality, he wore a gray robe) makes clear, memory is not infallible. Memory can be shaped and misshaped. It can be edited and distorted too. But then again, details don’t really matter in Beginners (perhaps Oliver’s shaky, flat, and simplified drawing style is meant to hint at his)—love and other feelings do.

For all its concern with time and memory, it is human emotion that forms the foundation (and the heart) of Beginners. The film is brimming with tender, sincere, and emotionally honest moments that, though they are often quiet, are also quite powerful. This is a very human film. None of the characters that Mills presents are perfect, but they are people, which means that they feel, suffer, and love. It also means that they are each worthy of a certain degree of sympathy; not because they are always morally upstanding, but because life is complicated, and it is hard. To feel joy when Hal finds love in Andy or to cry when he dies of cancer is not the same as to forgive him for remaining married to a woman he didn’t entirely want to be with, and Beginners seems aware of this.

I appreciate Beginners for its emotional power (it chewed me up and spit me back out again, crying and utterly spent), but I appreciate it even more for its restraint. It’s devastating, and even a little contrived (romance on screen just about always is), but it never feels over-the-top, forced, saccharine, or overwrought. Even with a character who comes out as gay at 75 and then dies of cancer just 4 years later, Beginners isn’t melodramatic. Beginners isn’t exactly an uplifting film, but it is optimistic in its own way. No matter how dark things get, they are never totally hopeless. At the same time, even those moments in which Oliver, Hal, or Anna seem totally happy or in love are tinged with sorrow. Such is life.

In Beginners, time, memory, and feeling combine to form persons. One of these persons is Oliver, who is clearly affected by his upbringing and has all sorts of fears, insecurities, and even mannerisms that can be traced back to his parents in some way. Beginners doesn’t try to deny the fact that we are, to an extent, products of our environment. (Perhaps it is some fatalistic belief in the power of our pasts and childhoods that leads Oliver to go to the Halloween party in the beginning of the film dressed as Freud.) But that’s just part of it. As a number of the scenes featuring Hal make clear, the film believes that it’s never too late for someone to try something new, for them to seek their own happiness or to become a better or more genuine version of themselves.

Watching Beginners, I couldn’t help but notice just how many of its shots are through doorways or down hallways. One of the things that this cinematographic choice does is establish a certain distance between the film’s viewers and its characters (and between the past and present versions of Oliver). During such shots, viewers can see Oliver, Anna, or Hal, but they aren’t in the same room with them (because the camera isn’t in the same room with them). In this way, Beginners seems to be saying that, no matter how many movies you watch about someone (or no matter how much of their story you see from the outside), you can never really know them. But we can imagine some of their feelings, and maybe that’s enough.

Generally speaking, Beginners is a well-acted film. Ewan McGregor is engaging, though not particularly remarkable. Melanie Laurent is charming and graceful, and there is a depth in her performance that at certain moments, seems to be missing from McGregor’s.

Though he is often absent from the screen, Christoper Plummer gives the film’s most successful performance. As the dying, but full-of-life Hal, Plummer’s presence and poise are undeniable. His portrayal of Hal is fully realized, and I can’t help but wish that the film had focused more on him and less on Oliver. There are some great things about the part of the film that focuses on Oliver and Anna, but one gets the sense that Hal would have made for more interesting protagonist. In fact, Beginners feels a tad empty when he isn’t around (given Hal’s death, this may be deliberate, but still).

It’s possible that some may find Beginners to be a bit slow. I didn’t. That said, it may be one of those films that you need to be in the right mood to watch. I also imagine that there are some who will call the film “pretentious” based on nothing more than the fact that it makes a few quirky creative choices (for instance, some subtitles are attributed to a dog). Personally, I think such choices do more to contribute positively to the overall personality of the film than they do take away from anything that it has to say.
Watch Beginners now. 

Until Next Time
Thanks so much for reading. As always, feel free to let me know what you think of these reviews or the movies discussed above by leaving a comment below. When I’m not posting here, you can still keep up with my movie watching activity on twitter. (For instance, if you were following me on twitter, then you’d know that I was disappointed by Me and Earl and the Dying Girl even though I haven’t reviewed it here).

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