Flimsy "Anger Management"

Friday, April 11, 2003

Adam Sandler plays a nice guy and Jack Nicholson an offbeat therapist who teaches him how to become a two-fisted nice guy in Anger Management, a movie with a plot so flimsy and laughs so scattered it should send all concerned toward Career Guidance.

They gave Sandler a cute job as an executive assistant in a pet products company, an endearing assortment of ticks, like skittishness over penis size and the inability to smooch in public, and a smart, adorable, poetry-writing girlfriend (Marisa Tomei), who wants to be smooched. They gave Nicholson the most leeway he's had since The Witches of Eastwick to be all-knowing in that eyebrow-wiggling way of his, and the most chances to act magisterially goofy, like conducting Sandler in "I Feel Pretty" from West Side Story while backing up traffic on New York's Queensboro Bridge.

That's the level of invention in a movie that mistrusts Sandler's adenoidal comedic range so much that it surrounds him with a combination of good actors over-acting (not just Nichsolson, but John Turturro, Luis Guzman and Woody Harrelson) and real-life overreactors like Bobby Knight and John McEnroe. The latter presumably lends the production the patina of genuine Toxic Anger Syndrome. But the only thing authentic about the movie is its penchant for begging approval from the audience.

After a primal scene of the hero getting his pants pulled down in the streets at age 10 when he's about to have his first kiss, Anger Management does have an intriguing launch pad. A flight attendant accuses Sandler of assault when he taps her on the forearm to remind her that he requested headphones. She and an air marshal counsel him that "this is a troubled time for our nation" as they brutally put him down. It's a slaphappy microcosm of authority figures exploiting paranoia to buck up their own power. Like the setup in the Martin Lawrence movie National Security, that scene is the last gasp of daring or originality. Soon after, a judge sentences Sandler to anger-management counseling with Nicholson; following one more seemingly rage-aholic mishap, the doctor decides that the only solution is moving in with his patient.

What ensues is an odd-couple comedy built on one pal being a sort of benign snake in the grass -- King Cobra Nicholson, of course -- and the other, Sandler, being a sweet little glow-worm version of the worm who turns. Although Nicholson says he's treating Sandler for "implosive" as opposed to "explosive" anger, that's just a contorted way of explaining that he's not teaching Sandler anger management at all, but self-realization.

Nicholson resembles nothing more than an acting coach urging Sandler to feel his anger. Sadly, after his groundbreaking stretch in Punch-Drunk Love, a movie that homed in on the volatility of the Sandler persona's bottled-up sweetness, Sandler does seem to need an acting coach. Even when Nicholson isn't performing full-tilt, he at least knows how to polish up a star personality and take it on a crowd-pleasing spin. Sandler is nothing more than a genial blur who occasionally blurts out declarations of love and principle. But the movie may be reassuring to the young males in his core audience. If this guy can win the glowing Tomei, there's hope for all of them.