Anger Management is a terrible movie but it has somehow managed to secure one of the top positions at the box office for over four weeks. It’s exactly the sort of outrageously popular film in which Adam Sandler has specialized, the crude and amateurish comedy that defies critique.
Indeed, the audience with whom I saw Anger Management seemed to be laughing a great deal so my desultory view of the movie is probably a minority. I can also accept the argument that comedy is an area where conventional good taste ought to be suspended. What is disturbing about Anger Management is its laziness and waste. Its blandness is suffocating. Like so many recent comedies, Anger Management is only anarchic on the surface–at bottom, it is deeply conservative, orchestrating the familiar romantic clichés, denying its talented leading actress a worthwhile part, and even spouting a self-righteous homage to Rudy Giuliani and the community spirit of New York City. Anger is the lure, but this movie is all about feeling cozy and affirmed; it’s all about yoking comic aggression to the blockbuster money machine.
The movie’s wit begins and ends in the ads: Adam Sandler stars as a luckless and depressed man who, because of a childhood trauma, has so stifled his anger that he can’t even summon the fortitude to kiss his girlfriend (played by Marisa Tomei) in public. By dint of a series of misunderstandings, this aggressively withdrawn man is court-ordered to attend anger management seminars taught by none other than Jack Nicholson–the Five Easy Pieces guy, The Shining guy, the Batman and The Witches of Eastwick guy–in short, the guy whose very name connotes insolence and aggression bordering on or crossing over into psychotic rage.
It’s a very funny casting idea, more clever, for example, than casting Robert DeNiro as the gangster client of psychologist Billy Crystal in Analyze This and That , the pop template into which Anger Management has clearly plugged its Sandler/Nicholson duo. But this gag (the one you can get from the previews, where you don’t have to pay eight dollars for it) is the only witty one oferred by Anger Management . The rest is a garbled mess that propels not only its leading actors but also its overqualified supporting cast–including John C. Reilly, John Turturro, Luis Guzman, Heather Graham, and the criminally underused Harry Dean Stanton–into one derivative and sloppily executed joke after another. Everyone finally winds up at one of those ridiculous finales where the shy guy overcomes his performance anxiety to "step up to the plate" and propose to his girlfriend in front of an audience of millions at Yankee Stadium–proving once and for all that what love can’t conquer, sports metaphors can.
Domesticating Adam Sandler for the box office is an unfunny project. As the director Paul Thomas Anderson demonstrated in last year’s edgy and occasionally brilliant Punch Drunk Love , Sandler’s comic energy is built on the actor’s tenuous balance between sweetness and violence. Like the equally over-stimulated Nicholas Cage, he’s always on the verge of lashing out and destroying everything and everyone around him. Sandler’s earliest films, Happy Gilmore and Billy Madison , had a genuine anarchic spirit and wildly destructive humor fed by Sandler’s unblanced screen presence. Unfortunately, Sandler’s most recent comedies, including this new one, have strait-jacketed the actor into the role of the romantic hero; they’re all about managing anger.
You can find this review, along with other reviews of past and current film, theater, and opera, on our website, at wfiu.indiana.edu. In the meantime, this is Jonathan Haynes, reviewing movies for WFIU.