'Anger Management' film not as contrived as it could have been

Posted: Thursday, April 10, 2003

Everything about ''Anger Management'' screams contrivance:

Shoving Adam Sandler, who has built a career as a man-child with a short fuse, into rage counseling.

Pairing him with another seething personality, Jack Nicholson, as a batty anger-control mentor.

The manner in which Sandler's character is sentenced to anger management, which plays out with such absurd artificiality it borders on screenwriting slothfulness.

The pull-out-all-stops approach, with megamoney and megastars able to attract a parade of celebrity cameos, among them Bobby Knight, John McEnroe, Roger Clemens, Derek Jeter and Rudolph Giuliani in a significant bit part.

On its own, the cash forked over for the soundtrack -- which includes Santana's ''Black Magic Woman,'' the Rolling Stones' ''19th Nervous Breakdown,'' Blondie's ''Heart of Glass'' and Cream's ''Strange Brew'' -- could have kept a dozen Hollywood hotheads in anger therapy for life.

With all that potentially infuriating artifice and excess, ''Anger Management'' rankles far less than it might have and produces scattered laughs.

Granted, for every gag that works, there are 10 that reek. But with their unlimited resources, director Peter Segal, writer David Dorfman and executive producer Sandler just keep piling it on, figuring the law of averages is on their side.

Sandler plays lifelong doormat Dave Buznik, who's too much the inert wimp to rise above his job designing clothing for overweight felines. Yet for all his passivity and inhibitions, Dave manages to win and keep the heart of the bright and beautiful Linda (Marisa Tomei).

On a business flight, Dave is seated next to obnoxious, intrusive Buddy Rydell (Nicholson). A logic-defying fracas follows in which Dave, meekly seeking headphones to watch the in-flight movie, is accused of assaulting a flight attendant and winds up subdued by an air marshal.

A judge sentences Dave to 20 hours of anger management with a therapist -- who, coincidence of coincidences -- turns out to be Buddy. Dave is subjected to enough discord and antagonism from Buddy and his group-therapy patients to rile Gandhi. Provoked to inadvertent violence, Dave is condemned to 24-hour, live-in counseling with Buddy.

The movie ultimately tosses up an explanation for the outlandish paces the system puts Dave through. But it's just another contrivance, and an unnecessary one, really, given that ''Anger Management'' never aspires to anything more than lowbrow hijinks. Let's throw crazy Adam and crazy Jack together and see what happens.

That approach does result in funny moments. Prolonged as the scene is, it's hard not to crack a smile when Buddy forces Dave to stop his car in heavy traffic on New York's Queensboro Bridge for a duet on ''I Feel Pretty'' while angry motorists crawl past, cursing.

Sandler, coming off a stab at textured performance in last fall's ''Punch-Drunk Love,'' is back doing what his fans like best, fuming pubescently.

Nicholson's really slumming from the darkly comic role in ''About Schmidt'' that earned him his 12th Academy Award nomination. Yet his sheer ''Jack-ness'' makes some of the ordinary psychobabble he utters sound funnier than it is.

He even pokes fun at his own anger-management history, an incident in which he was accused of bashing another driver's Mercedes with a golf club: Furious over a car blocking his vehicle, Buddy hefts a golf club and a baseball bat, then settles on the latter to smash in the car's window.

Notable supporting players include Heather Graham, Woody Harrelson and Harry Dean Stanton in walk-on roles, Sandler pal Kevin Nealon as Dave's inept attorney, ''Punch-Drunk Love'' co-star Luis Guzman as an effeminate anger patient and John C. Reilly as Dave's boyhood bully turned Buddhist monk.

John Turturro, the only decent element in Sandler's ''Mr. Deeds'' last year, is good for a laugh or two as Dave's out-of-control ''anger ally.''

It would be easy to rant over the talent and resources squandered in the service of this bloated-to-the-gills comedy. Better to hum a calming mantra, recognize the movie for the star vehicle it is and laugh where you can -- as good an approach to ''Anger Management'' as any.

''Anger Management,'' released by Sony's Columbia Pictures, is rated PG-13 for crude sexual content and language. Running time: 101 minutes. Two stars out of four.


Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:

G -- General audiences. All ages admitted.

PG -- Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.

PG-13 -- Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.

R -- Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

NC-17 -- No one under 17 admitted.

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