The management of anger is a fun theme for a comedy starring a hyperaggressive clown, but it has little to do with the strenuous, spottily amusing Adam Sandler/Jack Nicholson vehicle Anger Management (Columbia). This turns out to be another put-upon-little-guy picture: It's making the case for anger—or, more precisely, for standing up for oneself, carpe-ing the diem, self-actualizing. Since most comics, Sandler among them, are already a little too self-actualized for my taste, it doesn't strike me as an especially constructive (or funny) area for exploration. The last thing I want is for gazillionaire jerks to conclude that keeping their tempers in check is bad for their mental health. That way lie righteous assholes.
Sandler plays a mousy lower-middle executive who has problems with public expression of emotion after a childhood trauma: A big bully pulled down his pants while he was smooching a girl, and all the kids (as is their wont in this sort of comedy) hooted at the smallness of his member. Twenty-five years later, after not quite kissing his starved-for-romance girlfriend (Marisa Tomei) at the airport, he gets into a Twilight Zone sort of scrape aboard a plane. (Among the injuries he is said to have inflicted on the flight attendant was calling her a "stewardess.") In lieu of prison time, Sandler is sentenced to anger management workshops led by Nicholson, whose hair pokes up in random places and whose eyebrows curl ever more asymmetrically.
The big absurdist joke is, obviously, having this gonzo, hold-it-between-your knees wild man assigned to muzzle a sad, strangled-voiced guy with a neurotic (but endearing) tendency to repress his rage. And if played with a smidgen of realism (in, say, the vein of David O. Russell's Flirting With Disaster ), the movie might have been howlingly funny, even probing.
But it's quickly apparent that that premise is not really the premise, that all the gags will revolve around how far Nicholson can push Sandler into losing his temper, not managing it. He pairs him with a lunatic hothead (John Turturro) who picks a bar fight with a blind man. He pushes him into the arms of a hulking German transvestite (Surprise Star Cameo No. 1), who wants to slap him around, and a willowy goddess (Surprise Star Cameo No. 2) with nutso self-image problems. ("I'm a porker! Say it!") Then, in the movie's lone slapstick triumph, he delivers Sandler into the presence of the bully who pulled down his pants (Surprise Star Cameo No. 3), now a bald and seemingly placid Buddhist monk. Finally, he makes a play for Sandler's girlfriend.
None of the talented actors and comedians in Anger Management is exactly at his or her peak, but the audiences that detested the plaintive, surreal lyricism of last year's Punch-Drunk Love will choke on their popcorn at this one. See a Lexus fall off a parking garage! See Sandler give a fat guy a wedgie! See Nicholson plop down next to Sandler in a tiny bed and tug off his T-shirt and undies! OK, Nicholson is fun, not so much for what he does as for what he might do. And he does confer much-needed glamour on slobs the world over—although he looks so much like an Al Hirschfeld caricature of himself that I kept searching for little "Ninas" in all his wattles and creases.
Anger Management is bearable up to its protracted climax, set in Yankee Stadium, which gets my vote for the most excruciating wind-up of any comedy, ever. Just when you think it can't possibly get any more gruesome, along comes Rudy Giuliani—frozen-faced girfriend Judith Nathan in tow—to give the now-emboldened hero the thumbs up. You want Theater of the Absurd? How about Giuliani telling Yankee officials to let a guy who jumped on the field address the crowd? This is in contrast to what he'd do in real life— instruct his goons to stave in the man's head with billy clubs.
I could live with the obviousness of the gags, the whacking infantilism, and maybe even the generous-souled Giuliani if I weren't so impatient with the picture's equating self-assertion with self-realization. Many people have a soft spot for Albert Brooks' 1991 picture Defending Your Life (similar in theme if not in tone), in which one's worth is measured by one's nerve, in which the only sin (punishable by reincarnation on Earth instead of a bus ticket to a higher astral plane) is not expressing one's anger, not Going for It. I can understand why Brooks, reportedly self-critical to the point of paralysis, would see the impulse to act out as a mark of successful adjustment. But most comedians, especially middle-class Jewish ones, should stop equating the world with their overbearing mothers. Learning to stand up and say, "I'm angry, therefore I am" is not the way to self-realization: We will not replace our Buddhas with statues of Harvey Weinstein.