Paul Thomas Anderson’s romantic comedy “Punch-Drunk Love” was released in 2002 and retains every ounce of its offbeat charm decades years later. In what feels like a startling departure from his previous roles, Adam Sandler plays Barry Egan in this Golden Globe-nominated performance.
Barry runs a small business in LA’s San Fernando Valley, which produces novelty toilet plungers and other gimmicky trinkets. His severe social and anger issues hinder his romantic pursuits, so he seeks intimacy with a phone sex operator, who extorts him at the behest of her crooked boss “Mattress Man” Dean Trumbell (Philip Seymour Hoffman).
Barry’s lonely existence is upended when he crosses paths with his pushy sister Elizabeth’s (Mary Lynn Rajskub) co-worker Lena Leonard (Emily Watson). When Barry’s budding relationship with Lena is jeopardized by his dealings with Trumbell, Barry confronts his fears by finding strength in the love he finally earned.
If you were moved by “Punch-Drunk Love,” here are 12 more original, visually-striking romantic films that also deal with complex and sometimes lost protagonists (bordering on anti-heroes), journeys of self-discovery, and more ambiguous or nuanced takes on love.
Warning: spoilers below.
Most romantic comedies center on romantic relationships, but Noah Baumbach’s delightful “Frances Ha” shifts the focus to a friendship between college best friends and roommates Frances Halladay (Golden Globe nominee Greta Gerwig) and Sophie Levee (Mickey Sumner).
Frances is a struggling apprentice at a New York City dance company, who aspires to be a regular member. She enjoys her scrappy life in Brooklyn, but her co-dependent friendship with Sophie is holding her back. Like Barry in “Punch-Drunk Love,” Frances is a series of contradictions. She is ambitious, yet lazy; she’s both sincere and snarky.
When Sophie announces she is moving to an expensive apartment in Tribeca that Frances can’t afford, Frances is forced to face the music. She comes into her own throughout amusing detours home for Christmas in Sacramento, a botched spontaneous getaway to Paris, and a humbling return to her alma mater that reunites her with Sophie.
Shot in gorgeous black-and-white cinematography, “Frances Ha” incorporates French New Wave flourishes, particularly its clipped editing and narrative that’s broken into chapters set in the various places Frances calls home. Gerwig, who co-wrote the film’s script with Baumbach, is luminous as Frances. She keeps you rooting for Frances regardless of how many times she sticks her foot in her mouth.
“Punch-Drunk Love” may be Paul Thomas Anderson’s smallest film in terms of scale, but he treats Barry and Lena’s relationship in an operatic fashion with an anxiety-inducing percussive score, impressionist interludes, and artfully cartoonish design. Writer/director Mike Mills similarly projects his intimate, semi-autobiographical family drama to celestial extents in the beautifully melancholy romantic comedy, “Beginners.”
Mills employs poetic voice-over narration, video art, a talking Jack Russell terrier, and a nonlinear framework to untangle the complicated relationship between Oliver Fields (Ewan McGregor) and his father Hal (Christopher Plummer in an Oscar-winning role). When Hal learns he is terminally ill in the twilight years of his life, he comes out of the closet as gay and discovers a new lease on life, which inspires Oliver to find his version of happiness.
After Hal passes, Oliver heeds his father’s advice and pursues a relationship with actress Anna (Mélanie Laurent), whom he meets at a friend’s Halloween party. “Beginners” is a moving collage of romantic comedy, art, and love stories that posits that it is never too late to start over.
There is a problematic dearth of gay stories within the world of romantic movies generally, and there are even less queer films rooted in a real truth of experience. Writer/director Andrew Haigh’s understated “Weekend” is the rare exception.
Told over the span of three days, “Weekend” follows reserved lifeguard Russell (Tom Cullen), as he ditches his friend Jamie’s (Jonathan Race) house party to sneak off to a gay club in search of a hookup. He finds a match in vivacious art school student Glen (Chris New) and they spend the night together.
Instead of sneaking out before dawn, Glen lingers at Russell’s and they spend the morning engaging in a refreshingly frank conversation about sex, gay culture, and past relationships. When Glen reveals he is moving to America the next day to begin art school, the dynamic takes on a newfound urgency, as the two men reckon with what they stand to lose.
Like “Punch-Drunk Love,” Haigh’s romantic dramedy hones in on two people seeking intimacy. But “Weekend” subverts many of the standard plot points of a romantic film, instead focusing on the private moments of connection Russell and Glen share in between life’s big moments. For its painstaking authenticity alone, “Weekend” is quietly revolutionary.
Spike Jonze’s Oscar-winning “Her” features one of the most unorthodox relationships ever depicted in a romantic film — or any genre, for that matter. Set in a future Los Angeles, this critically-adored science fiction dramedy centers on depressed professional letter writer Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix).
Theodore is struggling to move on with his life after separating from his ex-wife Catherine (Rooney Mara). Apart from his friendship with married neighbors Amy (Amy Adams) and Charles (Matt Letscher), Theodore leads a solitary existence between work and playing video games.
He finally makes a meaningful connection with Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson, who replaced the film’s original voice actor), an intuitive virtual assistant. The kinetic spark they share slowly blooms into something more romantic, feeding Samantha’s yearning for knowledge and luring Theodore out of his shell.
“Her” is a dazzlingly original vision and its success is largely thanks to how Jonze treats Theodore and Samantha’s relationship with the utmost sincerity. It prevents his film from ever falling victim to its premise of a human and an A.I. falling in love.
Miranda July’s major directorial and screenwriting debut “Me and You and Everyone We Know” is a fascinating exploration of social isolation and the forces that bring us together. July’s film unfolds like a collection of short stories, featuring interwoven vignettes.
The film focuses on department store shoe salesman Richard Swersey (John Hawkes), who is struggling with being single again after separating from his wife Pam (JoNell Kennedy). He’s readjusting to splitting time with their sons Peter (Miles Thompson) and Robby (Brandon Ratcliff). Things start to look up for Richard after a chance encounter with Christine (July), a fledging performance artist, who works as an “elder cab” driver. The two strike up a gentle romance, which is not unlike Barry and Lena’s trajectory, as Richard similarly finds love in an unexpected kindred spirit.
Before its release, the quirky indie romantic comedy rode a wave of festival buzz, winning the Caméra d’Or prize at the Cannes Film Festival and the Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival (via IMDb). Thankfully, it delivers on the hype. Some may find July to be a divisive filmmaker and this movie in particular may involve some tricky forms and subject matters, but it does not have a malevolent bone in its body. In fact, “Me and You and Everyone We Know” is downright lovable.
Of all Paul Thomas Anderson’s films, the one that bears the closest thematic resemblance to “Punch-Drunk Love” is his 2017 Oscar-winning 1950s period piece “Phantom Thread.” Although the two films are set on different continents and some 50 years apart, they are united by their idiosyncratic romances.
“Phantom Thread” is the captivating tale of brilliant, obsessive London fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis). His life, which has been meticulously curated and organized by his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville), unravels upon meeting waitress Alma (Vicky Krieps). Reynolds is taken by Alma’s mysterious allure and she quickly becomes his design muse, favorite model, and romantic partner.
“Phantom Thread” showcases the transformative power of love for solitary characters, even when it is not for the better. Reynolds becomes possessive and controlling over Alma, as she disrupts his methodical schedule and routines, which prompts her to lash out and secretly sabotage him. This may sound dark, but the “Phantom Thread” is a deceptive dark comedy of manners, relishing in its central couple’s devious behavior. The two eventually find their equilibrium, as their opposed worldviews are unified by … toxic mushrooms.
Writer/director David O. Russell’s Oscar-winning romantic comedy “Silver Linings Playbook” embraces many of the genre’s formulaic structures, but like “Punch-Drunk Love,” it distinguishes itself among its peers through its unconventional lead characters.
Patrizio “Pat” Solitano Jr. (Bradley Cooper) is bipolar and has just been released from a stint at a psychiatric hospital. He returns home to suburban Philadelphia to live with his well-meaning — albeit a bit suffocating — parents, Pat Senior (Robert De Niro) and Dolores (Jacki Weaver).
Like Barry in “Punch-Drunk Love,” Pat Jr. struggles with his mental health and experiences debilitating panic attacks. His recovery takes a turn when he meets Tiffany Maxwell (Jennifer Lawrence in an Oscar-winning turn) at a dinner party. They share one of cinema’s most unusual meet-cutes, as they bond over the various medications they have tried to treat their depression. This leads to a whirlwind romance steeped in screwball comedy with jogging, dancing, and gambling on the Philadelphia Eagles.
The romantic comedy plot scaffolding can be quite apparent at times, but Cooper and Lawrence’s off-kilter chemistry and Russell’s charming script keep “Silver Linings Playbook” fresh from the start to its charming, chaotic end. This film is a reminder that romantic movies can handle difficult subjects while remaining thoroughly entertaining.
“The Worst Person in the World” marks the third entry in writer/director Joachim Trier’s Oslo Trilogy (via IndieWire). Trier chronicles the trials and tribulations of effervescent Julie (Renate Reinsve), a medical student, who transitions to writing, then working in a bookstore, then being a photographer, as she navigates the choppy seas of her late 20s and early 30s.
Divided into 12 chapters spotlighting specific moments and phases of Julie’s life, the film is largely defined by her two long-term relationships with controversial cartoonist Askel (Anders Danielsen Lie) and sensitive environmentalist barista Eivind (Herbert Nordrum).
“The Worst Person in the World” boldly eschews romantic comedy conventions in its narrative scope, similarly to the way “Punch-Drunk Love” takes an original approach to a well-worn genre. At the same time, the Oscar-nominated Norwegian film delivers the emotionally searing highs and heart-wrenching lows we have come to expect from the genre. It even boasts a love triangle that will find you ardently siding on team Askel or Team Eivind.
With his critically praised “The Worst Person in the World,” Trier proves to any naysayer that the modern romantic comedy is still alive and well and hosts plenty of room for experimentation.
A common sweet spot for romantic comedies is the gray area between a friendship and a relationship. Writer/director Sofia Coppola’s Oscar-winning “Lost In Translation” occupies this sphere with a quiet transcendence. It focuses on two lonesome, jet-lagged Americans in Tokyo: Hollywood movie star Bob Harris (Bill Murray in an Oscar-nominated role) and recent college graduate Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson, in her breakout performance).
Bob is begrudgingly in town to fulfill his duties for his promotional sponsorship with a Japanese whiskey company. He shoots commercials and makes TV appearances on an embarrassing promotional tour. He is in the throes of a midlife crisis with a marriage on the rocks and the best years of his career in the rearview mirror. Charlotte is experiencing a quarter-life crisis of her own, having tagged along to Japan with her celebrity photographer husband John (Giovanni Ribisi) to work a press junket for an action film starring daffy actress Kelly (Anna Farris).
Bob and Charlotte find solidarity in their isolation, which might remind “Punch-Drunk Love” fans of the way that Barry and Lena find each other. Here, Bob and Charlotte forge a fast friendship over drinks at the Park Hyatt Tokyo bar, wild nights out on the town, and intimate conversations about their pasts and hopes for the future. Coppola expertly keeps Bob and Charlotte’s dynamic enigmatic until their bittersweet farewell in one of the best final scenes of all time.
Directed by music video maestro-turned-indie-auteur Michel Gondry, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” is one of the most beloved romantic comedies of the 21st century and rightfully so. Charlie Kaufman’s Oscar-winning screenplay is an inventive portrait of the ill-fated relationship between shy recluse Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) and bubbly, prickly Clementine Kruczynsk (Kate Winslet in an Oscar-nominated turn).
In the months following the couple’s messy break-up, Joel receives a peculiar letter from a company called Lacuna, which alerts him that Clementine underwent a procedure to remove all her memories of him. Devastated, Joel retaliates by undergoing the procedure himself, which Lacuna Doctor Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson) likens to “effectively brain damage.”
“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” takes viewers on a kaleidoscopic journey through Joel’s mind, as he relives his memories of Clementine. He reminisces on the good, the bad, the ugly, and everything in between. As each memory gradually disappears, Joel grows wary of his decision, finding himself shaken by how Clementine has permeated the nooks and crannies of his subconscious. He falls in love with her all over again.
“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” is a mind-bending trip that tells one of the most original love stories on-screen, which is reason enough for “Punch-Drunk Love” fans to check it out. It unearths universal truths about love, as it dissects Clementine and Joel’s story and ends with a lovely moment of hope that will melt even the iciest of hearts.
Barry and Lena are quite the odd couple in “Punch-Drunk Love,” but they are no match for Billy Brown (Vincent Gallo) and Layla (Christina Ricci), the central duo in Gallo’s haunting “Buffalo ’66.” The romantic crime dramedy trails jittery Billy, as he is released from prison after serving five years for taking the fall in a crime he did not commit.
Billy travels home to Buffalo, New York in the middle of a bleak winter to visit his estranged parents Jan (Anjelica Huston) and Jimmy (Ben Gazzara), both of whom are unaware of his incarceration. In an attempt to keep them in the dark, Billy abducts teenaged Layla from a tap dancing studio and informs her that she will pose as his wife “Wendy” when they meet his parents.
Like Barry, Billy is emotionally unstable and prone to fits of rage when he does not get his way, which occurs throughout “Buffalo ’66.” But Layla’s presence has a soothing effect on Billy’s ferocious temper and the two grow closer as they let their guards down. Part twisted fairy tale, part experimental indie, Gallo’s film plays like a “Punch-Drunk Love” B-side.
Auteur Wong Kar-Wai’s “Chungking Express” is a poignant meditation on loneliness, which is divided into two separate but cleverly criss-crossed stories about two Hong Kong police officers experiencing the dreaded post-breakup blues. The first segment centers on He Qiwu (Takeshi Kaneshiro), who is left blindsided after his girlfriend leaves him. While hopelessly waiting for her to return to him, he distracts himself by starting an obsessive routine of purchasing tins of pineapple, which is similar to Barry’s hoarding Healthy Choice pudding to mount frequent-flyer miles in “Punch-Drunk Love.” Qiwu is lured from his spiral when he meets a mysterious woman (Brigitte Lin), who smuggles drugs.
The second, and more famous, segment of “Chungking Express” focuses on Cop 663 (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai), who has just been dumped by his girlfriend (Valerie Chow). She drops off Cop 663’s keys at a shop he frequents, handing them off to an employee named Faye (Faye Wong). Faye has fallen in love with Cop 663, so rather than give him his keys back, she decides to start breaking into his house.
The plot may sound morose and maybe even sinister, but “Chungking Express” is a genuinely thrilling romantic comedy that elevates its characters’ everyday mundane lives to rhapsodic heights with frenetic cinematography, hyper editing, and a rousing pop-centric soundtrack. Get ready for “Dreams” by The Cranberries to be stuck in your head for weeks after viewing.