The concept is everything in “Anger Management.” Prospect of seeing Adam Sandler as a mild-mannered Everyman required to undergo anger management training at the hands of a confrontational therapist played by Jack Nicholson is undeniably ripe, and the public will no doubt find the premise’s allure irresistible. But a couple of brakes-off set pieces to the side, the antics here are strained, graceless and tiresomely crude, the sorts of things audiences feel they’re supposed to laugh at rather than well-developed situations that generate genuine amusement. All the same, in this forlorn era for inspired comedy, B.O. will be very big.
After swimming in more rarified waters last year in “Punch Drunk Love” and “About Schmidt,” respectively, Sandler and Nicholson are back in the big pond this time doing what comes naturally. For Sandler, this means playing a meek, modest average schmo, Dave Buznik, who’s put through the wringer when a mild misunderstanding on an airliner is legally exaggerated into an “act of rage” that results in a court-ordered 20 hours of group therapy run by Dr. Buddy Rydell (Nicholson).
As the participants include such extreme types as a Latino queen (Luis Guzman), a sports addict (Jonathan Loughran) and two lesbian porno stars (Krista Allen, January Jones), the unassuming Dave feels as though he’s there by mistake, and the good doctor promises he won’t keep him past one session. But when Dave gets into a barroom brawl with his assigned “anger ally,” ex-con Chuck (John Turturro), the judge (the late Lynne Thigpen) lowers the boom, which lands the hapless hero in Buddy’s “intensive” program.
It’s here screenwriter David Dorfman’s high concept hits the wall of its own limitations and splatters into forced low comedy. Incredibly, the bearded and beret-sporting Buddy turns up at Dave’s loft to announce that, as part of the new “radical therapy,” he’ll be moving in with him. Not only that, but they’re going to sleep in the same bed. Viewers who chortle at the sight of this development, which includes Buddy announcing he sleeps in the nude, cozying up to Dave in the sack and lifting up the covers to allow his fart to waft out, will probably enjoy the rest of the picture. Those who reject it as patently absurd and a craven ploy to generate laughs at any cost will have a trying time from this point on.
One scene that could have been hilarious if it had been properly motivated — but will be much cited anyway as some sort of classic if only because of Nicholson’s contribution to it — has Buddy forcing Dave to stop on the Queensboro Bridge during rush hour in order to join him in a duet of “I Feel Pretty” from “West Side Story.” Dave won’t be the only one wondering what the point of this impromptu performance is, but interlude’s far-fetched conception is the sort of thing that takes a star of Nicholson’s cool and audaciousness to put over, and he does make a spectacle of himself as he gives Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics an undeniably fresh once-over.
So much else seems thrown in just for effect, almost all of it crass rather than actually funny: The repeated golf club gags, a pointed reference to Nicholson’s own real-life anger issues; the relentless penis-size jokes, which stem from Dave’s fear that his g.f. Linda (Marisa Tomei) is going to run off with her famously endowed close friend Andrew (Allen Covert), and Buddy urging Dave to demeaning vulgarity in a bar in order to pick up a sexy woman (an unbilled Heather Graham), who undertakes a strange exercise in self-debasement herself during an unpleasant striptease.
One semi-exception to the feeble level of inspiration involves a visit to a Buddhist monastery, where Buddy intends for Dave to settle a long-standing score with Dave’s childhood nemesis and former bully (an uncredited John C. Reilly) who now comports himself peacefully as a monk. Naturally, things don’t remain quiet for long, and while this action comedy sequence of escalating physical abuse is clumsily handled by director Peter Segal (a little study of Laurel and Hardy-style slow-burn comedy would have gone a long way), there is still some humor to be found in the disruption of pristine calm in the Japanese-style compound and in the eruption of the bully’s true personality from behind the newly acquired Eastern facade.
After Buddy delivers Dave the ultimate blow of running off with Linda himself, it all ends up in a ludicrously overblown finale in a packed Yankee Stadium, where Dave is meant to see why he’s been put through his ordeal — as well as being forced to ask himself whether or not he truly deserves his errant girlfriend. Not only does the scene recycle that most manipulative and overused modern device — the climactic onscreen ovation by a crowd to endorse the actions of the leading characters — but provides the excuse to trot out a bunch of New York celebs, including former mayor Rudy Giuliani and singer Robert Merrill, both of whom have a few lines, and Yankees Roger Clemens and Derek Jeter.
Much of the effect here, for better or worse, depends upon the contrast between the submissive, unassertive Dave and the overbearing, naturally commanding Buddy, and the stars deliver accordingly. Since the point is that Dave doesn’t actually need anger management (although he does require a jolt of self-confidence), Sandler keeps his perf low-key, which is the only way to go anyway when you’re up against a full-throttle Nicholson. The material doesn’t allow Nicholson to hit the sometimes outrageous notes of “As Good as It Gets,” “Batman” or “Terms of Endearment,” but his broad comic strokes, underlined by intimations of malevolence and uncertain motives, put this perf in that ballpark.
Supporting turns are lively if overdrawn, with Woody Harrelson making the most striking impression as a lewd German-accented transvestite hooker Buddy introduces to Dave.
Pic is aesthetically inelegant, with a fair amount of mismatched shots and some patently phony skyline backdrops, but otherwise technically competent.