Scene Stealers is a new feature exploring supporting characters, smaller roles or particularly memorable cameos that either stick with you more than their screen time would warrant, or steal the whole show from the leads entirely. These characters have a unique perspective, or at least a unique attitude, when it comes to existing and interacting in their screen world; they’re unlike anyone you’ve ever met, but you still believe in them. The first instalment looks at Philip Seymour Hoffman stealing Adam Sandler’s thunder in Punch-Drunk Love.
Punch-Drunk Love is a criminally underappreciated romantic comedy from 2002, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Starring Adam Sandler, Emily Watson and Luis Guzmán, it‘s a fairly straightforward romantic love story presented in a most delightfully unusual style and filled with bonafide oddballs. It follows Barry Egan, an autistic man (it’s never explicitly said, but he routinely struggles to interact with even members of his own family), and his burgeoning relationship with a friend of his sisters’, Lena (Watson). There’re also sideplots involving exploiting an offer on air miles through buying pudding cups, smashing a set of french windows, and an abandoned harmonium that Barry “rehomes” from the street – it all makes for a refreshingly different and unique romantic comedy.
Sandler’s performance as Barry is the highlight of his career, something he’ll struggle to improve upon. Many of you will undoubtedly refuse to believe that Sandler could ever be anything other than irritating at best (indeed, most people thought Anderson was joking when he said he wanted to work with Sandler), but the director brings out the best in him and he’s captivating to watch. However, he has the rug well and truly pulled out from under him, performance of a lifetime be damned, by the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman in less than five minutes of screen time.
Hoffman plays Dean Trumbell, a Utah mattress salesman who runs an extortion racket on the side. He uses a fake phone sex line to gain the credit card details of lonely men, then guilt-trips and blackmails them into sending the “girls” more money. If they don’t pay, he sends goons after them. The first time we see Trumbell, he’s ordering his boys to go and rough Egan up; he’s smooth, calm, clearly in charge and boy doesn’t he know it. When one of the brothers protests their fee, he shuts him down in a flash, calls the guy and his family poor white trash directly to his face, and that’s that. No shit is taken by Dean Trumbell, no sir.
Barry refuses to play ball, however, and when Hoffman’s goons cross a line, he decides it’s time to speak to the man at the top. What follows is one of the finest phone conversations ever committed to celluloid. Barry’s righteous anger is contrasted wonderfully by Hoffman attempting to arrogantly shrug him off as he usually would, which turns into speechlessness at Barry having the gall to call him out on his wrongdoings, and finally to rage of his own as he repeatedly yells “SHUT! SHUT! SHUT UP! SHUT THE FUCK – UP!!” over the constant, breathless barrage of Barry’s accusations. His frustration at not being in control bursts out of him as he loudly curses in impotent fury in the middle of several sentences.
This loss of power is compounded further when Barry actually goes to Utah to confront him face to face; Trumbell quickly clocks that he isn’t the boss in this situation, and that Egan is somewhat unhinged (he did drive from L.A. to Utah just to scream at a guy in person, so that’s a reasonable assumption to make). Realising this, however, he slinks into a faux-submissive persona, the sleaziness oozing out of Hoffman; it’s masterful how he brings so many facets to a character in such a small timeframe.
It’s truly impossible to do the performance justice in mere words alone, and Punch-Drunk Love is well worth a watch, so hunt it down and bask in the weird, heartwarming love story that unfolds. And Philip Seymour Hoffman’s beetroot red face.