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100 Years, 66 Villains: #4. The Sisters in Punch-Drunk Love

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on June 27, 2008

Now that 100 Years, 100 Villains has gotten to the very bottom of the barrel, the abbreviated write-ups that have populated these lists so far are simply unsifficient. Stay tuned this week as we count down the top six in proper fashion.

There are black comedies, like American Beauty. Then there are Black comedies, like Madea’s Family Reunion. Then there are black comedies, like Punch-Drunk Love. The kind of movie where you get nauseated by your own laughter, the kind of movie where there’s no real separation between the parts that are hilarious and the parts that are eye-wideningly disturbing. It’s a rare breed of movie, and as a matter of fact, the only other concrete example I can think of is the movie or next villain comes from, so I’ll refrain from talking about that for the moment. But suffice to say, the hilarity of Punch-Drunk Love–and it is hilarious, one of the funniest movies this decade–comes from a dark, dark place. More specifically, it comes from a bunch of evil big sisters.

The truly ingenious thing about Punch-Drunk Love, I think, is Adam Sandler–not his performance, necessarily, although that is quite good, but the way it uses his pre-existing character type in a way no one really had the balls to do before. With a handful of exceptions, Adam Sandler has generally played the same character his entire career, that of the loveable loser man-child with a distaste for authority and a passion for 80s arena rock. It’s certainly not a heroic character type, but Sandler always surrounded himself with enough selfish, manipulative assholes that there was no doubt that he was the good guy, and thus we celebrated his immature tendencies as exemplary of an admirable joie de vivre and a sort of naive integrity, both of which his enemies roundly lacked.

What Punch-Drunk Love did was basically to show what the Sandler character would actually be like in the real world. Barry Egan is as emotionally stunted and generally well-meaning as Happy Gilmore and Billy Madison, and has the same quick, violent temper as those characters as well. But rather than translating as goofy and adorable, Barry is just really, really sad. I guess it might be more accurate to say that Barry is Happy or Billy after a few more years, having lost his confidence after realizing that no one’s digging his  grown-ass middle-schooler schtick anymore, and realizing his life might not just find direction on its own. Fact of the matter is, most dudes in arrested development around 30 don’t luck into pro golf or football careers, or stand to inherit hundreds of millions from benevolent benefactors. Some of them just lead lonely lives in boring jobs from which they try to escape through phone sex and pudding.

But lest we forget, Barry has another very, very good reason to have no self-confidence, which we see all throughout the movie in the abuse he gets from his older sisters–a whopping seven of them, led by high-strung juggernaut Elizabeth (the usually loveable Mary-Lynn Rajskub). To say that these sisters are overbearing feels woefully insufficient to me, since it seems that a lot of the time when you’re talking about an “overbearing” family member, it’s someone who just cares too much to know when they should back off a little. But there is no love whatsoever in Barry’s sisters’ treatment of him–rather, their interest in his affairs seems divided between being meddling in his life as a personal pet project and reflexively using him as an emotional punching bag.

There are scenes that strike more fear into my heart than any horror movie since Dawn of the Dead. Like the scene where Elizabeth first brings Lena (Emily Watson) to meet Barry, and he balks at asking her out, partly because she embarrasses him in front of her by mentioning his crying problem. After she comforts a confused Lena, mostly by insulting Barry, she storms back to reprimand Barry with a look in her eye that just says I am going to make you regret this decision for the rest of your life. Then later in the movie, Barry spontaneously flies to Hawaii to see Lena, but not knowing where she’s staying, he’s forced to call Elizabeth to ask for her help. She holds the information hostage, forcing him to admit that he likes her first–not in an affectionate, teasing, sibling way, but more in an “admit it, I know what’s good for you so much better than you do” way.

But all pales in comparison to the party scene, the only scene in the movie where we get an onslaught of all seven sisters at once. The first shot says it all–Barry opens the door, overhears his sisters getting nostalgic about how they used to call him “gay boy,” and reflexively begins to back out, hoping maybe to escape the horrors to follow. Once he makes the fateful decision to enter, he’s quickly barraged by each of his sisters in their own unique, subtle way–one makes fun of his suit, one teases him about his sexuality (“are you gay now??”), one negates the gift he brought (“We [already] have a cake”), one nags him about a shampoo they bought for him, one mocks an excuse he used to get off the phone earlier in the movie, and Elizabeth of course chastises him for not wanting to meet Lena. And it just gets worse from there.

It’s a perfect scene, one that’s brilliantly designed to feel just like your average family gathering (scattered activity, characters entering and leaving, basic pleasanteries exchanged), but with a violence deeply imbued in the family dynamic, so ingrained that you feel like no one else in the movie probably even notices it. It’s positively chilling, and when Barry finally snaps as a result, kicking and punching in a couple of the house’s glass doors, it comes to the viewer as pure relief that the scene’s aggression has finally been brought into the forefront. But perhaps most disturbingly, Barry’s sisters do not seem at all concerned by this rather extreme outburst, nor do they seem particularly surprised by it, just using it as an opportunity to him some more (“WHAT THE FUCK IS YOUR PROBLEM???” “YOU FUCKING RETARD, BARRY!!”) The scariest thing about this scene is the past that it implies–30+ years of holidays, family trips and other parties, likely not all that different from this one.

I guess you could say that Mr. Perry deserves to be higher than the Egan Sisters, since Barry eventually escapes his siblings’ tyranny, while Perry’s familial oppression ultimately proves fatal for son Neil. But much as I love cartoonish over-dramatizing, it’s the stuff that feels all too real that truly gets under my skin. And for that, Nicole Gelbard, Mia Weinberg, Julie Hermelin, Karen Hermelin, Lisa Spector, Hazel Mailloux and Mary Lynn Rajskub, I salute you with the #4 slot on this list.

(Here’s the list so far, for those of you just tuning in, all of which can be read about in detail from here:

66. Ian / Ray (Tim Robbins), High Fidelity
65. Jacy (Cybil Shepherd), The Last Picture Show
64. Jesus’s Entourage (Bill Nunn, Rosario Dawson, Arthur J. Nascarella), He Got Game
63. Sarah Mitchell (Bridget Fonda), A Simple Plan
62. Agents Big Johnson and Little Johnson (Robert Davi and Grand L. Bush), Die Hard
61. Taylor Vaughn (Jodi Lynn O’Keefe), She’s All That
60. Coach Bud Kilmer (Jon Voight), Varsity Blues
59. Philip Stuckey (Jason Alexander), Pretty Woman
58. Mrs. Chasen (Vivien Pickles), Harold and Maude
57. Officer Coffey and Officer Graham (Jessie Lawrence Ferguson and Kirk Kinder), Boyz n the Hood
56. Oliver Slocumb (Ryan Philippe), Igby Goes Down
55. Rick Spector (Michael Bowen), Magnolia
54. Jeanine Pettibone (June Chadwick), This Is Spinal Tap
53. Larry Sokolov (Ron Livingston), The Cooler
52. Muriel Lang (Rosie Perez), It Could Happen to You
51. Zachary “Sack” Lodge (Bradley Cooper), Wedding Crashers
50. Bert Jones (George C. Scott), The Hustler
49. Little Bill’s Wife (Nina Hartley), Boogie Nights
48. Amber (Elisa Donovan), Clueless
47. Warden (Patrick McGoohan), Escape From Alcatraz
46. Various Game Ruiners (Clifton James, Michael Lerner, Christopher Lloyd, Michael Rooker, Richard Edson, Kevin Tighe, John Anderson, Don Harvey), Eight Men Out
45. Laura Lizzie (Christine Taylor), The Craft
44. Janey Carver (Sigourney Weaver), The Ice Storm
43. George Willis Jr. (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Scent of a Woman
42. David Bedford (John Laroquette), Blind Date
41. Ronny and Donny Blume (Ronnie & Keith McCowley), Rushmore
40. Jonathan Poe (Michael Nirenberg), Searching for Bobby Fischer
39. Bernie and Joan (Jim Belushi and Elizabeth Perkins), …About Last Night
38. Joanna Kramer (Meryl Streep), Kramer Vs. Kramer
37. Principal Ed Rooney (Jeffrey Jones), Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
36. Bill Houston (David Morse), Dancer in the Dark
35. Sid (Voice of John Morris), Toy Story
34. Mike (Joe Mantegna), House of Games
33. Buck Grotowski (Peter Boyle), Monsters’ Ball
32. Gil Shepherd (Jeff Daniels), The Purple Rose of Cairo
31. Kitty Farmer (Beth Grant), Donnie Darko
30. Bill Lumbergh (Gary Cole), Office Space
29. Mitch Hiller (Billy Campbell), Enough
28. Mrs. Lisbon (Kathleen Turner), The Virgin Suicides
27. Rose Chasseur (Glynis Johns), The Ref
26. Cobra Kai Dojo (William Zabka, Martin Kove, others), The Karate Kid
25. Heathers (Shannon Doherty, Kim Walker, Lisanne Falk), Heathers
24. Cal Hockley (Billy Zane, Titanic
23. Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton, Michael Clayton
22. Shooter McGavin (Christopher McDonald, Happy Gilmore
21. Jo (Gretchen Mol), Rounders
20. Ruth Folwer (Sissy Spacek), In the Bedroom
19. Guy Woodhouse (John Cassavettes), Rosemary’s Baby
18. Earline and the Rest of the Fitzgerald Clan (Margo Martindale, Others), Million Dollar Baby
17. Coach Jack Reilly (Lane Smith), The Mighty Ducks
16. Jack Lopate (Thomas Hayden Church), Sideways
15. Walter Peck (William Atherton), Ghostbusters
14. Stephen Glass (Hayden Christiensen), Shattered Glass
13. Beth Jarrett (Mary Tyler Moore), Ordinary People
12. Professor Edward Alcott (Greg Kinnear), Loser
11. O’Bannion, Darla & Clint (Ben Affleck, Parker Posey, Nicky Katt), Dazed and Confused
10. Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon), Election
9. Troy (Ethan Hawke), Reality Bites
8. Regina George (Rachel McAdams), Mean Girls
7. Steff (James Spader), Pretty in Pink
6. Biff Tannen (Michael F. Wilson), Back to the Future trilogy
5. Mr. Perry (Kurtwood Smith), Dead Poets Society
4. The Egan Sisters (Nicole Gelbard, Mia Weinberg, Julie Hermelin, Karen Hermelin, Lisa Spector, Hazel Mailloux and Mary Lynn Rajskub), Punch-Drunk Love

2 Responses to “100 Years, 66 Villains: #4. The Sisters in Punch-Drunk Love”

  1. Erick Bieritz said

    Awesome pick. We totally had a conversation about this a few years ago. I think I was half-joking at the time but you really sell it.

  2. intensities said

    I think “We totally had a conversation about this a few years ago. I think I was half-joking at the time but you really sell it” is the new IITS masthead.

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