Anger Management

In recent outings, both Jack Nicholson and Adam Sandler offered up something new. In About Schmidt, Nicholson wonderfully played against type as a quiet, bittersweet sad sack of a regular guy, a retiree with regrets and family troubles. In Punch-Drunk Love, Sandler displayed an emotional depth and layers of character as a quirky, lonely, single fellow on the lookout for love.

Unfortunately, they’re back to their same old tricks in Anger Management, a film that, on paper, holds promise. What could go wrong with two comic megastars, a seemingly interesting premise and a genuinely appealing trailer? Plenty.

In addition to the dull familiarity of Nicholson as a crazed loudmouth, and Sandler as a nice-ish guy who revels in frat-boy high jinks, Anger Management represents a case in which the preview makes much more sense than the actual movie. If the film were an absurdist comedy taking on the evils, injustices and contradictions of modern society, it might be okay that the characters’ motivations remain indecipherable throughout an interminable 101 minutes. Or that the protagonist doesn’t come even close to committing the crime of which he’s accused. But Anger Management instead is an odd combination of lowbrow, revenge and romantic comedy, and it doesn’t work on any level.

At the outset, a preteen babe wearing a pink ChiPs T-shirt (the costume is among the most amusing things in the movie) coaxes a shy, awkward boy to kiss her while they’re outside on a crowded New York street. Just as they’re under way, a bully sneaks up and pulls the boy’s pants down, while the many kids witnessing the scene enjoy a huge laugh. Flash forward 25 years, to the grown-up Dave Buznik (Sandler), a polite administrative assistant who’s been known to do his boss’s work and who understandably has difficulty kissing his girlfriend Linda (Marisa Tomei — why can’t this lovely, great actress get a decent leading role these days?) goodbye in public at the airport as he’s leaving on a business trip.

Once on the plane, things take a turn for the worse. He’s accused of assaulting a flight attendant when, in fact, he simply (and repeatedly) requests a headset that the snippy stewardess never supplies. But he’s hauled off to court, and sentenced to extensive "anger management therapy." Of course, the therapist, Buddy Rydell (Nicholson) is far more mad than Buznik will ever be. A bona fide nutcase with a pack of equally outrageous, and truly angry, patients, Rydell’s treatment plan is to move in with Buznik, and proceed to torture him, messing with both his love life and his work life. (Dave’s job, working at a company that creates dopey designer clothes for overweight cats, is another of the film’s few enjoyable bits.)

The movie has two main problems. One, Buznik never really gets angry, and two, the plentiful sex and potty jokes are always crude and rarely funny. As in many Sandler films, what Anger Management does have going for it are numerous cameos by actors who usually are in infinitely better movies than this. While the movie plods, what keeps it from becoming sheer torture is the knowledge that some typically interesting performer is about to pop up. Discovering, and keeping score of them, becomes a necessary diversion.

But even the novelty of the unbilled appearances wears off during the unbelievably lame climax, at a Yankees baseball game. The romantic comedy cliches, and the impossibly unsatisfying payoff, ought to disappoint even Sandler’s – and Nicholson’s — biggest fans. Blame can’t solely go to these powerhouse stars, who fill up the screen as they always do — even though they should have known better. It’s only fair to spread it around by acknowledging the lack of creativity demonstrated by director Peter Segal and writer David Dorfman. With this lineup of actors — as good as it gets –they should have conjured up fiery explosions of sidesplitting comic anger management rather than this tepid taste of implausible assertiveness training.

– Leslie Katz