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How Punch-Drunk Love changes the course of actors’ careers

Adam Sandler’s Punch-Drunk Love offered dramatic roles for Paul Thomas Anderson.



The romantic comedy/drama Punch-Drunk Love, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson and starring Adam Sandler as a shy plunger salesman who falls in love and battles with a blackmail plan from a phone sex operator, will celebrate its 20th anniversary in October. Among the other actors he shared the screen with were Emily Watson and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. While the picture did not do well at the box office, it was a critical and commercial success that set the stage for Sandler’s subsequent success.

Prior to the success of Punch-Drunk Love, Sandler had a reputation for portraying juvenile characters in slapstick comedies. Fair enough, he still is, but he’s also well-known for his dramatic range thanks to films like Hustle, which came out just this year. Punch-Drunk Love was important in getting him there by shaking up his typical routine.

In contrast to other Adam Sandler movies like Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore (also recognized as Bobby Hill’s most-watched golf comedy), Punch-Drunk Love is consistently serious. Barry Egan, the cinematic character played by Sandler, suffered from depression, anxiety, and isolation. This was in sharp contrast to his previously upbeat characters, who made no secret of their eccentricities. Instead, Barry sought to cover them up and fool others into thinking he was fine.

Anger management was also an area where Sandler’s portrayal of Barry stood out. Sandler’s earlier movie characters were quick to vent their frustration or engage in physical conflict. Though Barry attempted to internalize his emotions, this usually resulted in frighteningly violent or destructive episodes. Sandler’s ability to portray a serious, legitimately troubled character was on full display in this film.

In films like “The Wedding Singer” and “Big Daddy,” Sandler had also established himself as a likable romantic lead. In Punch-Drunk Love, he played a character named Barry who was anything but extroverted and secretive toward his love interest, Lena, until he finally felt comfortable enough to confide in her. At the film’s conclusion, Barry was shown to be anxious about their future together but ultimately content in her company.

Sandler continued making comedies after the film’s release, some of which were successful (such as the Hotel Transylvania films) while others (such as 2012’s That’s My Boy) were widely panned. However, he has been cast in tragic films including Men, Women & Children, The Meyerowitz Stories, and Uncut Gems. Punch-Drunk Love may have been knocked out at the box office, but it gave him new possibilities that added to his reputation. It only goes to show that every performer has depth, even if they’re usually typecast as a comic relief character.