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Punch-Drunk Taxi Driver

Punch-Drunk Taxi Driver

He’s moved past it now, but the big knock on Paul Thomas Anderson back in the ‘90s was that he stole all his best moves from Martin Scorsese. Though Anderson always acknowledged the influence, he also insisted “Boogie Nights” was a lot more than the sum of “Goodfellas”’ parts (and that he stole a lot more from Jonathan Demme than Scorsese). The claim stuck anyway; this is what happens when you make a movie set in the early ’80s with a great period pop soundtrack about dudes zonked out of their minds on coke in a shag carpeted house.

I never made much of the comparison, or held it as a knock on Anderson even if it were true —  you know the expression about how good artists borrow and great artists steal. Rewatching “Boogie Nights” this week, I was even less convinced that P.T. was just ripping off Marty, and time has certainly proven Anderson to be a director of considerable range and a host of skills uniquely his own. Nevertheless, as I’ve been revisiting his early films I’ve also been revisiting the early criticism of those films — and the Scorsese thing pops up over and over.

Which got me thinking: can we draw a line between another pair of Anderson and Scorsese movies, the way people draw a line between “Boogie Nights” and “Goodfellas?” At first, none came to mind. And then I rewatched “Punch-Drunk Love” and it occurred to me: 

“Punch-Drunk Love” is basically a romantic comedy version of “Taxi Driver.”

Again, I’m not suggesting Anderson was cribbing from Scorsese, or even that “Taxi Driver”‘s Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) was an inspiration, consciously or otherwise, for “Punch-Drunk”‘s Barry Egan (Adam Sandler). But if Anderson is our generation’s Scorsese, and “Boogie Nights” is his “Goodfellas” — his tale of a young man’s initiation into and seduction by a dark underworld — then “Punch-Drunk Love” is his “Taxi Driver” — his tale of a deranged man lost in a world of sin and chaos. As a comedy, obviously.

Though their movies have (somewhat) different tones, Bickle and Egan do seem cut from the same cloth. Both have been twisted by formative experiences into deeply repressed individuals who are clearly uncomfortable with their sexuality and members of the opposite sex. Travis spends his nights prowling porno theaters on The Deuce; he’s so lonely he tries hitting on the woman at the concession stand. Barry spends his nights calling phone sex lines; he’s so lonely he tries making small talk with the woman on the other end of the line.

Both men are soft-spoken but carry a proverbial (or, in Barry’s case in one scene, literal) big stick: both snap when they become convinced a woman they love is threatened. Travis kills the pimp who’s been whoring out his young friend Iris; Barry brutally beats four men who deliberately crash his car. Travis’ behavior is definitely more extreme, but Barry’s actions are hardly rational — he’s so nuts he doesn’t even hang up the phone when he snaps during a call with the man who sent the four goons after him and his girl. He turns and runs out the door, ripping the handset right out of the base. When he confronts the “Mattress Man” behind the whole scheme, Barry’s still clutching the phone. Apparently, he held onto the damn thing for the entire ten hour drive from Los Angeles to Provo, Utah. 

The moment this comparison came to me actually had nothing to do with any of those scenes, though. It was the sequence where Barry follows Emily Watson’s Lena all the way to Hawaii, and claims he’s in town on a business trip (something that now strikes me as very Travis Bickleish behavior). Barry and Lena are reunited in the lobby of her hotel; he goes in for a handshake and she grabs him and plants a big kiss on him as Jon Brion’s score swells and breaks into the film’s romantic love theme.

Earlier in the movie, I’d been paying close attention to Brion’s dynamic, atonal score, particularly in the scene where Barry, flustered by problems at work, a sudden appearance by Lena, and threatening calls from the phone sex operator demanding money, appears to be headed towards some kind of emotional meltdown. The contrast between the modern percussion music in that sequence, with the old fashioned melodies in that later one brought to mind Bernard Herrmann’s brilliant score for “Taxi Driver,” which juxtaposes cacophonous swells of drums and horns with a lush, romantic saxophone line. Whether Brion and Anderson intentionally lifted the device from Berrmann and Scorsese or not, the effect is exactly the same: the music evokes the characters’ fragile mental states, and their manic-depressive mood swings between despair and elation.

Do the two movies line up perfectly? Of course not. “Punch-Drunk Love” is a romantic comedy and “Taxi Driver” is a pitch black (though, one could argue, still romantic) horror-tinged drama. Barry finds someone who returns his affections; Travis does not. One of our heroes gets an unequivocal happy ending; the other, one that’s much more ambiguous. But there are some interesting parallels. What do you think? Are there more I left out? Or less than I’ve claimed? And who wants to start lining up “The Master” and “The Last Temptation of Christ?”

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