Fight Club

Sandler and Nicholson yell at each other, and it's unpleasant.

Anger Management
Dave and friend, between hissy fits.
Dave and friend, between hissy fits.

Among Anger Management's copious flaws is the fact that its premise doesn't wash. Adam Sandler's Dave Buznik, a designer of catalogs for overweight-cat clothing, isn't really angry at all; he's just a self-loathing, introverted mess, whose insecurities date back to a crowded street party in Brooklyn, circa 1978, when he was about to kiss a girl for the first time -- till a bully yanked down his pants to reveal Dave's little-boy shortcomings. Since then, he's had a problem with public displays of affection, but even that hasn't hampered his dealings with the ladies; Anger Management opens with Dave strolling through the airport with his girlfriend, who looks very much like Oscar-winner Marisa Tomei (and whatever happened to her?). When Dave does lose his temper, it's always with good cause: A boss insults him, a flight attendant mocks him, a counselor taunts him. Dave could use a little therapy, perhaps -- or just a hug -- but then the makers of this movie would have no reason to pair Adam Sandler with Jack Nicholson, the shark's-tooth grin that swallows the kid whole.

Anger Management, written by a novice and directed by the maker of both Tommy Boy and the sequel to The Nutty Professor, is the very thing the posters advertise: an inverted Punch-Drunk Love, Paul Thomas Anderson's intimate film of last year about a man whose quiet exterior barely conceals the time bomb within. (Then, all of Sandler's Hollywood outings have been veiled remakes of their predecessors.) Sandler has never played a truly different character; they're the same guy in a different movie, the same short fuse in a slightly different casing, with a slightly different girl and a slightly different happy ending. But Anderson had compassion for Punch-Drunk's Barry Egan -- not pity, but genuine love for him, as a father might for a slightly off son he just wanted to see made happy and whole. Writer David Dorfman and director Peter Segal view Dave only as a weakling, a timid yutz who's let the world trample on him -- till, at last, he is so misunderstood and maligned that he's sentenced to anger-management counseling after allegedly threatening a flight attendant who won't bring him headphones. They don't even seem to like the fellow.

The movie's supposed to play like a mismatched-buddy picture, but Nicholson's Dr. Buddy Rydell, the therapist who's out to "cure" Dave, is so outsized that he overwhelms Sandler, who comes off as a bit player in his own movie. It's as though all those impulses Nicholson smothered in About Schmidt -- the eyebrows cocked like revolvers and that echo-chamber laugh -- have been unleashed a thousandfold; his inner Joker has been given free rein to wreak havoc on the innocent. His is less a performance than a pastiche of maniacs he's known and loved; it's like watching an American Film Institute tribute-dinner compilation reel, with Sandler as the audience held hostage for the homage. (There's even a nod to Nicholson's real-life taking of a golf club to another driver's windshield.) By film's end, all Sandler has left to do is shout at Nicholson variations on the phrase "You damn crazy bastard," which grows increasingly tiresome. What's most astonishing is that a film populated by two mad men can grow so wearisome and dull; the movie crawls toward its climax -- which is so barmy, it's almost surreal.

Dave's not angry, just an idiot, allowing Rydell to sucker him into an increasingly insane succession of exploits intended to cure him: picking up a woman by insisting she's about to "make my pants explode," attacking a childhood bully who's become a monk, deciding to break up with the woman he wants to marry. Dave acts only at Rydell's direction, which is less plot progression than a series of set-ups for gags that fall stunningly flat -- never more so than when former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani has to intervene. (Apparently the film takes place in an alternate universe: It's 2003, yet Rudy's still in charge.)

This film exists as if to embarrass a startling list of familiar faces: Woody Harrelson is a cross-dressing hooker, Heather Graham shows up smothered in brownie, Luis Guzman (Sandler's Punch-Drunk co-star) flabbily squeezes into fluorescent belly shirts as a gay man with anger issues, John McEnroe and Bobby Knight make requisite appearances as patients in Rydell's class (Knight, delivering lines made of wood, thought he was in Sexaholics Anonymous), and John C. Reilly literally flashes his ass as a monk with a former bully's bad attitude. Only Mr. Deeds high-point John Turturro, as a (Granada) war veteran, emerges unscathed: Dorfman has penned the best lines for him ("I think Eskimos are smug"), and Turturro amps up the absurdity by realizing, unlike his co-stars, that yelling alone doesn't make you funny. Now, Turturro not getting his own movie -- that will make you angry.

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