At the time, it might have been all too easy to see Punch-Drunk Love (2002) as an aberration in the career of Paul Thomas Anderson, so different it was from the high-wire ensemble films that had just pegged him as American cinema's wunderkind. Compared with the sensational breakout Boogie Nights (1997) and the expansive Magnolia (1999), plus his still underrated Tarantino-esque debut Hard Eight (1996), Punch-Drunk Love was something else: it was his shortest film, his smallest in scale and cast, a departure in tone and genre, a simple story with flights of abstraction, a character study light on his troupe of actors, and possibly his oddest picture to date—no small feat, considering that Magnolia ended with a rain of frogs. Fifteen years laterPunch-Drunk Love, out now on a long-speculated Criterion Blu-ray, looks more like the fulcrum around which his body of work pivots.

The story goes that after Magnolia, Anderson announced to an incredulous press that he would make an Adam Sandler comedy. But of course, when Punch-Drunk Love surfaced, it was an Adam Sandler comedy, not merely in the sense that it was a comedy with Adam Sandler in it, but that it lifted Sandler's character traits from such certifiably non-arty films as Billy Madison (1995), Happy Gilmore (1996), and The Waterboy (1998)—stunted man-children, prone to fits of anger, preoccupied with sex yet unable to connect with women—but actually took them seriously. Or, to use a certifiably arty term, it meditated on them, rather than using them as comic devices in an easily tidied plot.

Grantland, may it rest in peace, published an extensive series on Anderson, and noted an interview he did in France for the release of the film, where he said that Punch-Drunk Love was, or was at least intended to be, "an audience picture, for entertainment...I want to make a real entertainment movie." During the press junket, the highly cine-literate Anderson wasn't shy about his love of Adam Sandler movies, even likening Happy Gilmore to Robert Altman's Nashville (1975) as an example of joyous filmmaking. The mainstream favorites of "art" directors deserve a study of their own, and you should never trust any worldview that insists the two categories are separate. But Anderson's comments on "real entertainment" are not an isolated incident for him, whether it's sticking up for Terminator 2 (1991) during the promo tour for Boogie Nights, or praising Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy. I still remember stumbling across a Q&A Anderson did during the 70mm roadshow of The Master (2012), where the moderator asked him which films he'd assign if he were in charge of a film school. Anderson sat for a moment in contemplation, then passionately recommended that everyone go see Ted (2012), because for all the "weird stuff," "serious stuff," or "70mm stuff" a cinephile could get into—he gestured at the screen behind him—Ted reminded him of pure movie-going pleasure. Is there something in Anderson, hailed as a luminary, that halfway wishes he were more of an "audience" director? Only, as a talented artist, he's guided by instinct, and those instincts land him in the specialty corner?

'Punch-Drunk Love'

Our hero in Punch-Drunk Love is Barry Egan (Sandler), dressed in a bright blue suit and initially so meek he barely occupies the far end of an empty frame. He is a deeply lonely man; he calls a phone-sex line, apparently to have someone to talk to as much as to get off. For all his shyness, he is also capable of moments of violent anger, directed at inanimate objects like glass doors or bathroom stalls. Why is Barry this way? One possibility is that he grew up in a family of smothering sisters. On the surface this would suggest a mistrust of women. But then you must note how, when Barry is targeted for extortion by the owners of the phone-sex line, he's hounded by an aggressive gang of all brothers. The ray of hope comes in the form of Lena (Emily Watson), a woman ready to accept his flaws and draw him out of his shell, so long as he understands he needs to be there for her too. And so it becomes a movie about a peaceful, askew, delirious union of masculine and feminine: her choosing him, and him needing her just as his blue-and-white office needs a splash of her red dress.

Anderson described the film as partly an homage to Jacques Tati, and sight gags involving a toilet plunger, a swivel chair, a forklift, and a broken phone wouldn't be out of place in Mon Oncle (1958) or Playtime (1967). I'd also throw into the mix Jacques Demy, whose color-coded way of grafting fairy tales and musicals onto ordinary settings finds echoes in how Punch-Drunk Love pairs its swooning score with drab warehouses and florescent-lit hallways. Punch-Drunk Love is itself a kind of musical, albeit one where no one breaks into song, and one of its best character arcs goes to a broken harmonium that by the end is able to sing. There is a certain beauty to this, the way that Barry and Lena's romance—the modest connection of two over-thirty oddballs on the middle rungs of the L.A. sprawl—feels as magical as romance always does to the parties involved. This delightfully weird comic whimsy is still singular in Anderson's work, unprecedented and not returned to since. A more significant legacy of Punch-Drunk Love is how it hones its point of view, as it may be Anderson's most effectively focused study of a particular kind of hero.

Characters like Barry Egan—that is, incomplete men grappling with the existential condition of having a prick—had been central in Anderson's films before. The description fits Mark Wahlberg's porn star in Boogie Nights and at least half the men of Magnolia. But his early films were also ensembles with a multitude of perspectives, giving meaty roles to Gwyneth Paltrow, Heather Graham, Julianne Moore, and Melora Walters, who got to express as much sympathetic guilt as the men. So it's worth considering that since Punch-Drunk Love, women in Anderson's cinema largely have been viewed from the outside: not shallowly or negatively, but from a distance that the protagonists and the films themselves try to close. It's of no small significance that, in her first scene, Emily Watson's face is obscured by the sunrise, making her both angelic and beyond the full perception of a Sandlerian character like Barry.

'Punch-Drunk Love'

The Master, a film about post-war America as Freudian as any melodrama made then and there, charts how Joaquin Phoenix's raging id finds healthy ways to express itself around women. When the trailer dropped for Anderson's Thomas Pynchon adaptation Inherent Vice (2014), some fans voiced hope that it would be a return to the robust ensemble method of Boogie Nights. But Inherent Vice is a very fragmented style of ensemble comedy, with each character off in his own space and no overriding sense of shared community. The characters were more like the spokes of a wheel with Phoenix's private eye at the center, in search of a symbolic, unreadable hippie-chick ex-girlfriend (Katherine Waterston) tantalizingly out of reach.

Discounting Amy Adams's Lady Macbeth figure in The Master, who isn't exactly a character we're meant to like, the primary role of women in The Master and Inherent Vice is to be phantasms, memories the heroes yearn to relive or ephemeral ideas they yearn to make tactile. That leaves There Will Be Blood (2007), where women are hardly present at all, though it wouldn't be unfair to note that the most rapacious, misanthropic, bottled-up pathologies of Daniel Day-Lewis's oilman walk curiously hand in hand with a total and conspicuous lack of interest in women or sex. One of the final moments of Punch-Drunk Love shows Watson kissing Sandler, then holding him in her arms and rocking him gently. It's an image that looks backward to Mark Wahlberg crying on Julianne Moore's lap at the end of Boogie Nights—Anderson's men long for forgiveness as much as sex—and forward to Joaquin Phoenix in The Master, lying on the beach next to a woman made of sand when no real one can be found. There is something genuinely, even uncomfortably sincere about his heroes' search for an eternal feminine. Barry insists at Punch-Drunk Love's climax that he's a "nice man," not a "pervert," arguing with his own self-loathing as much as with his antagonists. It's a sentiment that could easily cap half of Anderson's films, and for that matter many of Sandler's early ones, if only they'd realized the strange potential for vulnerability in stories about men who never quite finished growing up.

Beyond that, Punch-Drunk Love is also the last film before Anderson's Jonny Greenwood period, which saw a talented craftsman of dialogue and monologue become increasingly drawn to texture. Anderson's early films overflowed with words and characters, but there's nothing in any of his 21st-century films like the extended, raw speeches he gave to Tom Cruise or Jason Robards in MagnoliaThere Will Be Blood, with its long dialogue-free stretches, and The Master, with its peculiar structure and strange undercurrents, rely heavily on atmosphere, to which Greenwood's scores are pivotal. There are, by design, more hummable melodies in Jon Brion's music for Punch-Drunk Love than there are in Blood and Master combined, which take musical motifs from their respective period-piece eras and turn them into alien soundscapes. As for Inherent Vice, Anderson once said he was drawn to Pynchon's novels because he'd "surrender" to the writing and let it "wash over" him like waves. And the film that resulted, in which spoken plot points sometimes swirl beneath Greenwood's music in the mix, strike me as nothing so much as an attempt to recreate that feeling as pure cinema instead of words. A colleague of mine described Inherent Vice as "baffling." I saw it twice, and the second time around, it made perfect sense, or at least as much sense as any fan of The Big Sleep (1946) should expect from an L.A. noir. But the first viewing, with its waves of fresh bafflement, was far more valuable than anything as mundane as a lucid plot.

Punch-Drunk Love sits literally at the midpoint of these two phases in Anderson's career, without easily belonging to either of them. It is a tight story and his final outing as the filmmaker laureate of the modern San Fernando Valley, yet it pointed to new adventurous formal and textural directions as well. Boogie Nights and Magnolia took off like rockets of kinetic energy and narrative drive; Punch-Drunk Love begins with the same sleep-walking spirit as its main character, with a series of unexplained incidents and a use of music that wavers beguilingly between sweet harmony and psychedelic dissonance.

So Punch-Drunk Love is still anomalous, both for Anderson and for the 2000s film scene that surrounded it, where quirk was common but few films had the gumption to be so unapologetically weird. I remember getting into debates with the few other film buffs at my high school about whether Punch-Drunk Love was a minor detour for Anderson or a sign that he was shaking off the last debts to Scorsese and Altman and becoming his own man. Today, it's much easier to argue for the latter. That Anderson could, in the span of one interview, describe Punch-Drunk Love as both a Jacques Tati homage and a stab at an "audience movie" points to a certain easy-going optimism. To a jaded soul, something like Mon Oncle is not what most moviegoers of 2002 would consider "real entertainment." But in its time and place, it was, and at repertory theaters still is; find any of Tati's features playing at a cinematheque, and they'll play to their audience. So would Punch-Drunk Love. Its pleasures are its own, and Anderson remains one of the few filmmakers of his generation for whom no new direction should be a surprise. His instincts have yet to land him in anyplace boring.