Dave Buznik (Adam Sandler) has always been a mild-mannered man stuck in increasingly frustrating situations. When a simple misunderstanding on an airline flight turns into an assault conviction, Dave is sentenced to intensive anger management classes, lead by Dr. Buddy Rydell (Jack Nicholson). Buddy’s methods are intrusive, coming in-between Dave and his girlfriend, Linda (Marisa Tomei). But when Dave learns that Buddy’s agenda might not be to help him, but to move in on Linda, he loses it, and finds the rage problems everybody already suspected he had.
There’s been a changing of the guard in Sandman country for this new go around. While the film preserves some the lovely atmosphere of Sandler’s recent hits, it does take baby steps away from his reliable formula. This could be a huge mistake for Sandler and Co., while “Anger Management” (IMDb listing) certainly has moments of pure bliss, the overall product has the tainted smell of a man who wants a little more mainstream acceptance.
Stepping in as director is Peter Segal, a comedy veteran of “Tommy Boy” and “Nutty Professor 2.” While Segal doesn’t have the most innovative vision in Hollywood, he is proficient enough to get laughs when they’re needed. He is game to play with the Sandler tone of irreverence and insanity, but also manages to give the picture a much more disorganized feel, allowing the actors to seize the film away from him from time to time. Segal knows more about direction than many of Sandler’s other hired guns, but his career path has always been to play it safe, and with “Anger,” he keeps the film away from danger, and that’s just what the picture needs.
Also gone is Tim Herlihy’s screenwriting, which has been so much fun recently (“Mr. Deeds,” “Little Nicky”). His replacement is first-timer David Dorfman, who writes with the same tones of Herlihy (who executive produces, so he‘s not out of the framework yet), but with decidedly less interest in the absurd. “Anger Management” starts as a rousing bit of comedic bile, but basically ends up a romantic comedy, with the shift never feeling natural. I doubt Herlihy would’ve willingly written something that ends this mechanically, so maybe that’s why he was kicked out of the writer’s chair for this outing.
In fact, the best jokes don’t come from Dorfman, but from the Sandler end of things. The cameos especially have that delicious bizarre touch, which could only find Woody Harrelson as a transvestite prostitute, John McEnroe and Bobby Knight as rage-aholics, Heather Graham as a neurotic chocoholic (a film highlight), Rudy Giuliani as himself, and John C. Reilly as a former bully turned Buddhist monk. These scenes provide the film with a spark of energy the overall plot cannot. I also enjoyed how Sandler plays a little bit to the older crowds with references to the Grenada conflict, Angie Dickinson, and the recent film “Auto Focus.”
In the two lead roles, Adam Sandler and Jack Nicholson make for an excellent team. Sandler gets a rare chance to play the straight man (also winking at his past roles, which specialized in uncontrolled rage), and he’s reliable Adam Sandler, but he never quite has the opportunity to jump off the deep end the way he excels at. Nicholson, on the other hand, is unstoppable. Taking a chance to play to the teen audience he hasn’t had in years, Nicholson is as relaxed as I ever seen him in recent turns, eating large sections of the screen with his performance. Nicholson burns Sandler off the screen merely because he has the flashier role. I give credit to Jack for allowing himself to be dipped in Sandler’s world, and he comes off even more impressively in the end with his flexibility. Besides, how many other chances are you going to have to see the two actors duet on “I Feel Pretty?” That is worth the price alone.
“Anger Management” certainly delivers on laughs, and it gives Nicholson a nice career boost that will make him the new best friend to a lot of teenagers out there. But it also signals a change of interests for Adam Sandler, and while I always support growth, I would hate to see him declawed. I liked the film, but I weep for the future.
Filmfodder Grade: B