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"Anger Management" Review

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Title: Anger Management

Starring: Adam Sandler, Jack Nicholson, Krista Allen, Marisa Tomei, Allen Covert

Written by: David Dorfman

Directed by: Peter Segal

Rating: PG-13 for crude sexual content and language.


Review by Stephen Silver

Say what you will about the new Adam Sandler vehicle "Anger Management"- it's got a great opening shot. The film begins with a shot of 1970s Brooklyn, in the way of introducing Sandler's character as a child. We're shown a vibrant, African-American neighborhood, in a shot that wouldn't have been out of place in Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing" until, about 5 seconds in, two Hassidic Jews walk by. This comical juxtaposition of racial/cultural imagery hints at a brilliance that, despite a few flashes of comic gold, eludes the rest of the movie.

Which isn't to say that "Anger Management" isn't in the upper echelon of Adam Sandler films; it certainly is. Sandler co-wrote and co-produced the film with the same team of his old college buddies who produced all his comedies from "Billy Madison" to "Mr. Deeds," and it actually appears that both Sandler and his collaborators have matured- which is more than I can say for his audience.

Sandler, as we all know, took his first-ever shot at cinematic respectability last year (and succeeded) in Paul Thomas Anderson's "Punch-Drunk Love," a quirky comedy/romance that despite its surrealism actually brought Sandler's traditional screen persona closer to realism than any of his goofy comedies had. In "Anger Management" Sandler once again plays a man grappling with the problem of excessive anger. And while the actor is back doing wacky comedy, one of the delights of the film is that his personality has been toned down considerably- there's mercifully less of his tiresome mugging and stupid high-pitched voices than what we're accustomed to. In fact Sandler, for the first time, plays the straight man to Jack Nicholson.

Nicholson, coming off his nuanced and restrained performance in last year's "About Schmidt," goes in the opposite direction- it's his first pure comedy in at least a decade, and he clearly has fun with the role of the crazy therapist trying to help Sandler's put-upon loser. Despite playing an inconsistent and horribly developed character, Jack gets all the best lines and provides most of the film's best moments.

The Sandler/Nicholson pairing is good, and there are a few quite hilarious setpieces, most notably a duet between the two men (in a parked car on the Triborough Bridge) of Bernstein/Sondheim's "I Feel Pretty." This, and the restrained performance that can almost be called Sandler Lite, are enough to make the film enjoyable for those who aren't in the built-in audience of hardened Sandler loyalists.

But there's also quite a lot not to like in "Anger Management." The plot is at once cliched and nonsensical and revelations at the end very much undermine some of the better moments. Despite quite a bit of farsical humor that Nicholson brings to the proceedings, there's also a fair amount of appallingly low-class stuff that's more par for the course in Sandler's previous work (in "Billy Madison," it substituted for both plot and character development). These include unfunny, totally debasing cameos by Bobby Knight and Woody Harrelson, as well as an actress in a bit part made to deliver a disgusting line in a bathroom stall.

Indeed, the film is like a long guessing game of which big-star friend of Sandler's will show up next- and so we get a parade of great actors (from John C. Reilly to John Turturro) doing some of their worst work ever. Marisa Tomei, hot off "In the Bedroom," shows up in the usual Sandler thankless-girlfriend role. P.T. Anderson fixture Luis Guzman, however, is priceless in a bit part as a queen-ish member of Sandler's therapy group.

There's a "Swingers" homage (Sandler goes to pick up Heather Graham at a bar, just like Jon Favreau did- though again, the best moment of the Graham sequence is undermined later on), while the entire Yankee Stadium finale is cribbed almost directly from another, much funnier movie, "The Naked Gun." Rudy Giuliani, of all people, even shows up in the Rob Schneider role, though Sandler tricking a security guard in order to run out onto the field isn't so funny anymore in light of the recent arrest in Chicago of a man doing the same thing at a White Sox game.

On top of a surprising patriotic/conservative vibe (Sandler lives next to a prominent "Army of One" sign and tells Giuliani that he's "the man"; the film was shot the summer after 9/11), the film occasionally returns to the racial/Jewish humor that's long been a subtext of Sandler's humor and is glimpsed in that marvelous opening shot- a black judge (played by the since-deceased Lynne Thigpen) talks about her son Raheem playing Teyve in a production of "Fiddler on the Roof"- and where did Sandler suddenly get this appreciation for classic musical theater?

Reviewers of "Anger Management" have for the most part not noticed that how much Sandler's persona was transformed by the near-deconstruction of Anderson's "Punch-Drunk Love." While glimpses of the old Sandler still creep up from time to time, the Adam Sandler we see in "Anger Management" owes much more to the "Punch-Drunk Love" character than, say, the "Happy Gilmore" version.

Sandler, now 36 years old and soon to marry, appears finally to be growing up- and while "Anger Management" is far from great, as someone who hated every single movie he made prior to "Little Nicky," I for one greatly look forward to the rest of his career.

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