THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan

"ANGER MANAGEMENT"

Anger Management teams up Adam Sandler and Jack Nicholson, and if that doesn’t make you want to see this movie out of sheer curiosity, then you have more resolve than I do. Typically (like a lot of critics, apparently), I haven’t been too fond of Sandler’s movies. I definitely believe the guy is capable of doing a lot more than he does, so I get frustrated by his frequent spaz routine in movies like The Waterboy and the dopey plots of films such as Big Daddy and Mr. Deeds. Maybe Sandler is changing his ways, though. First he teamed up with the intriguing director Paul Thomas Anderson for Punch-Drunk Love and now he’s not only pairing up with Nicholson, but also with a first-rate supporting cast that includes John Turturro, Luis Guzman, and John C. Reilly. Like I said – I had to see Anger Management out of sheer curiosity.

Sandler plays Dave Buznik, a semi-neurotic New Yorker madly in love with girlfriend Linda (Marisa Tomei). A childhood prank has made him insecure about kissing in public, but neither of them doubts his affection for her. While taking a plane trip, Dave makes a simple request of the flight attendant. His respectful tone is mistaken for belligerence, and an air marshal orders him to calm down. The dialogue continues until Dave ever-so-slightly pops his cork, at which point the air marshal zaps him with a tazer gun. He is then taken to court and sentenced to complete a course in anger management which is to be conducted by Dr. Buddy Rydell (Nicholson), a psychologist known for his outrageous methods.

Dave joins Rydell’s therapy group, which includes other hotheads (including characters portrayed by Guzman and Turturro). Clearly, he doesn’t belong with such short-fuse bullies, but Rydell thinks Dave needs more help than he realizes. After another visit before the judge, Dave is forced to participate in Rydell’s “extended” program, which entails the therapist moving in with Dave for 30 days and following him wherever he goes, including to work. Most of Rydell’s tactics seem to involve intentionally provoking Dave’s anger. He undermines the relationship between Dave and Linda by creating jealousy over her male “best friend” from college (who also, we are told, happens to be extremely well-hung). He also makes Dave pick up a woman in a bar against his will, confront the childhood bully (John C. Reilly) who tormented him, and flounder in the workplace. For a guy who’s supposed to be getting his anger under control, Dave seems to be getting angrier than ever.

Anger Management undoubtedly has an inspired mixture of concept and cast. What’s interesting is that the scenes that are obviously supposed to get the biggest laughs aren’t always as funny as the throwaway lines. (For example, Turturro’s character – perpetually pissed about everything – declares “I think Eskimos are smug.”) That’s not to say that the film doesn’t create some funny set pieces, because it certainly does. However, I generally laughed harder at the little jokes in the margins that don’t necessarily call attention to themselves. At this point, it’s kind of nice to see an Adam Sandler movie that actually does have jokes in the margins rather than just a series of forced gags center stage. Writer David Dorfman throws in some real zingers and director Peter Segal (Nutty Professor 2: The Klumps) finds the right tone to insure that they don’t get lost.

For a movie that’s ostensibly about anger, it’s kind of odd that Anger Management is anything but an angry movie. Instead of being nasty or edgy, it’s actually kind of good-natured. A common complaint about Sandler’s films is that the plots are often kind of sickly-sweet even though it’s obvious his comedy is rooted in some real anger. Nicholson carries his own baggage as well; a notorious road rage incident in which he beat someone’s car with a golf club has become the stuff of Hollywood legend.

Although the picture could have tapped into its own inner rage a little more, the stars clearly have a good time with the material; Nicholson, one suspects, really enjoys playing a therapist. Armed with a demonic variation on that famous grin and a grooming style that would be suitable for a biopic of Lucifer, Nicholson turns Rydell into a madman counselor. He’s John Gray by way of John McEnroe (who perhaps not so coincidentally cameos). The actor spouts therapy-speak with an underlying current of hostility that makes Dave (and the audience) wonder if he’s for real or just a flat-out psycho. Nicholson is very funny, and he elevates Sandler’s game. Perhaps working with one of the greatest actors ever made Sandler realize he couldn’t fall back on his usual bag of tricks. As such, he gives one of his most relaxed and natural screen performances to date. In some of his movies – especially The Waterboy - I actively hated Sandler because he was so unrepentantly obnoxious. This time, I found myself really liking the guy and starting to understand why he’s so popular. The comedian brings across an important quality in Dave: he’s perplexed about his own feelings. That’s a crucial element to convey – one that the movie’s success depends on. Sandler does a nice job in this role.

As I said, the movie could have been a little smarter about anger. Early on, Rydell tells Dave there are two types of anger: explosive and implosive. The explosive people pop their corks and then get on with their lives; the implosive people bottle it up until they pop their cork and hurt somebody. Dave, he claims, is the implosive kind. That’s a good observation, and the movie does a lot to suggest that Dave holds his anger in until provoked in just the right way. To really make that idea pay off, we needed an ending that made us feel like Dave might really have had the potential to go off the deep end had Rydell not helped him. Instead, as with many Sandler films, the movie goes for an over-the-top cornball ending, this one suggesting that Dave’s anger had a simple (and romantic) solution right under his nose. The touchy-feely conclusion even has Dave giving a heartfelt speech in front of a packed Yankee Stadium - much like the heartfelt speech he gave at the end of Mr. Deeds.

The conclusion may be weak, and there may be some less-than-ideal spots throughout, but I am going to recommend Anger Management for one simple reason: it made me laugh. At times, I laughed pretty hard. There’s something in the pairing of Jack Nicholson and Adam Sandler that just clicks. Here are two actors feeding off one another. They take the stuff that’s marginal and make it funnier than it deserves to be, and they take the stuff that’s already funny to begin with and make it hilarious. Not a classic comedy by any stretch of the imagination, but certainly one of the few Adam Sandler movies that sent me home feeling good as opposed to feeling…well, angry.

( out of four)


Anger Management is rated PG-13 for crude sexual humor and language. The running time is 1 hour and 41 minutes.

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