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Anger Management   D+

Columbia Pictures

Year Released: 2003
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Peter Segal
Writer: David Dorfman
Cast: Adam Sandler, Jack Nicholson, Marisa Tomei, Woody Harrelson, John C. Reilly, Luis Guzman, John Turturro.

Review by Rob Vaux

Back to business as usual for Adam Sandler. Punch-Drunk Love showed us what he was capable of, and the announcement that his follow-up project would star Jack Nicholson gave us hope that perhaps he had turned a corner. No such luck. Anger Management displays the same lame gags, mushy structure, and naked ego that mark the comedian's depressing modus operandi. It's all the more exasperating because we know now that it doesn't have to be like that.

The inclusion of Nicholson is certainly a promising sign. With his Jack Torrance grin and infernal wagging eyebrows, he feels like a natural fit for Sandler's frat-boy humor, and the chance to display his comedic skills doesn't come along very often. But Anger Management doesn't have the first idea how to capitalize on his persona, leaving both he and Sandler to fend for themselves. The results aren't pretty.

The miscues start early on, with the film's basic premise. After a contrived misunderstanding aboard a plane, Sandler's mild-mannered nice guy Dave Buznik finds himself in anger therapy, under the tender auspices of Dr. Buddy Rydell (Nicholson). The good doctor, of course, turns out to be borderline mental himself, complete with a patient list of closet felons and less-than-honorable ambitions on Buznik's girl (Marissa Tomei in an utterly thankless role). The concept has real potential -- a calm guy whom everyone thinks is psycho at the mercy of a genuine lunatic -- but Anger Management destroys it almost from the beginning by fudging on the main characters. Buznik apparently has real rage, we're told; he just has a hard time expressing it, and Rydell's "unorthodox" methodology is perfectly geared towards releasing those repressed emotions. The doctor isn't crazy, the patient isn't sane, and just like that, the satiric premise deflates into a limp-wristed sitcom. What looked like a real hoot becomes harmless and mealy-mouthed, defanging the comedy before it gets out of the gate.

Director Peter Segal rapidly compounds the problem with a series of sloppy sketches designed to exploit the odd-couple pairing. Few of them work, leaving a sour tang of desperation that only grows stronger as the film proceeds. The supporting cast sports some impressive names, but all are wasted (save John C. Reilly, who gets one of the film's few funny shticks as a childhood bully grown up into a Buddhist monk), and while the script thankfully avoids the gross-out jokes that punctuate most Sandler vehicles, it offers very little to fill the void. The half-baked setup foils any attempts to establish a proper comedic rhythm, and Segal has no idea how to manage the resulting mess.

Instead, Anger Management pins its hopes on raw star power to carry the day. Nicholson and Sandler have the right kind of energy together, but their ill-defined roles prevent them from capitalizing on that chemistry. The fault lies mainly with Sandler, whose desire to be liked trumps his ability to be funny. He can't stand the thought that we might not sympathize with Buznik, and his efforts to win us over fatally dilute the already strained humor. A good character is there, waiting for Sandler to pull the trigger as he did in Punch-Drunk Love. But he never quite summons the nerve, and without a stronger presence, he can't offer any help to Nicholson (who soon tunes out completely). I'd say that the two were trying, but after watching them stumble through the film's routine pratfalls and would-be punch lines, I can't even concede that much.

It's all capped off by a shockingly self-indulgent finale, which apparently exists solely so that Sandler can tell us all what a big Yankee fan he is (note to New Yorkers: THIS is why everyone hates your team). Anger Management founders long before then, but the cliché-ridden soppiness of the last 15 minutes (including a "twist" that sterilizes the film's few meager joys) make you embarrassed for everyone involved.

Like Sandler's other vehicles, Anger Management should be a huge hit; shoddy workmanship never stopped the man before. But in the wake of Punch-Drunk Love, we can see its glaring failures that much clearer. This is lazy filmmaking, squandering a decent notion solely because no one cared enough to make the effort. That Nicholson can do better goes without saying. That Sandler can do better... that's something else entirely. Anger Management suffers for their very real talent. Talent that it can't be bothered to use.

Review published 04.13.2003.

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