“I think Eskimos are smug.” This observation, by anger management patient Chuck (John Turturro), is at once the loopiest and most telling in Peter Segal’s mediocre buddy flick. Most obviously, it’s a joke at Chuck’s expense, as indicated by reaction shots of other, equally clueless group members. But it’s also indicative of the film’s weenie narcissism, as it simultaneously parodies and exults in boorish boy behavior.
Chuck makes his galootish announcement during a group session, the first one attended by newbie member and ostensible milquetoast Dave Buznik, that is, the latest version of Adam Sandler’s screen self. Like all Adam Sandler movies, Anger Management puts you in a difficult place — identified with the guy who seems least offensive, namely the Sandman. To this end, Dave doesn’t actually show much in the way of resolution, nerve, or even anger, which apparently, in the eyes of the court, makes him the ideal candidate for a special treatment system. (The judge who so orders is the late Lynne Thigpen, who, as ever, weathers all insanity with remarkable integrity.)
The circumstances of Dave’s arrest and obviously unjust punishment are broadly and swiftly drawn. It starts on an airplane (read: no escape), where he runs a veritable obstacle course of meanies, each goading him in a different way. He just so happens to be seated next to Buddy Rydell (Jack Nicholson), anger management guru, who laughs so raucously at the in-flight movie that poor Dave can’t catch the nap he wanted. Worse, he’s beset by a singularly snotty flight attendant and a huge black security guard who warns him not to misbehave because, as he puts it, voca odious, “This is a very difficult time for the country.”
Dave observes that there’s no clear connection between patriotism and a headset — again, making him seem the most sensible person in the frame — but he’s forced to take his lumps (in part because, in court, he’s defended by a lawyer who has no idea what’s going on, played with minimal energy by Kevin Nealon). The treatment includes going to that group session with Chuck, where he also meets prayerbook-reading Bobby Knight, midriff-baring flamer Lou (Luiz Guzmán), and hair-tearing sports fan (notably, Iverson fan) Nate (Jonathan Loughran), along with a pair of lesbian lover porn stars who confess to having stapled some guy’s lips together. Hardy har.
Ostensibly, Buddy’s system is designed to help Dave’s “implosive” anger (as opposed to “explosive” anger, which lets loose periodically, this type is typified by the beleaguered and timid “cashier who remains quiet day after day and finally shots everyone in the store”). He assigns Chuck and Dave to be “anger allies.” Dealing with rage that he’s been fired from his job driving an ice cream truck, Chuck recalls the war experience that’s left him so terribly scarred: children screaming, missiles flying. “Ah,” sympathizes Dave, “Vietnam?” No, comes the answer: Grenada. Gee, asks Dave, “Didn’t that last about 12 hours?” Grrr.
A predictable bar fight follows, and Dave has a new partner, with bigheaded Buddy himself. Seeing Dave’s case as crisis, he moves in, whereupon he begins offering bits of wisdom (“Sarcasm is anger’s ugly cousin”) and affronts (not only does he sleep in Dave’s bed, but he insists on sleeping naked). Threatened with prison time if he doesn’t comply, Dave grumbles okay, to everything, his face reorganized into a permanent twist.
Sandler actually handles the quieter moments of this performance with a restraint that recalls his brilliant work in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punchdrunk Love. But Segal (responsible for Nutty Professor II: The Klumps) and writer David Dorfman have what you might call a coarser sensibility. Even if Sandler (or, even less likely, Nicholson) opted for subtlety, nothing in Anger Management‘s basic architecture allows it. (This despite the fact that, as Sandler told Letterman during a visit on 8 April, “Normally when I make movies, when the other actor is talking, I don’t listen to them.” With Nicholson, he says, he made an effort to listen, to come with his “A-game.”) And so, they’re left warbling “I Feel Pretty,” stopped in traffic, harassed by passing drivers: “Burn in hell!”
In addition, Buddy’s program calls for Dave to meet with a tranny prostitute named Galaxia (Woody Harrelson, in a blond wig) and a pretty barfly named Kendra (Heather Graham), with a particularly red dress and a particular anger problem with anyone who suggests she’s “fat.” Buddy cajoles Dave into a trip to a Buddhist monastery where the bully who used to harass David as a child is now a peaceful monk (John C. Reilly, bald), whom Buddy goads into a rampage by suggesting that Dave molested his retarded little sister. The ensuing fracas (the other monks join in to help their fellow) ends with Buddy and Dave racing away from the scene, extolling their good fun while “kicking monk ass.”
You might think that kicking anyone’s ass is a redundant, rather inefficient way to manage anger. But this would be missing the point of Anger Management, which goes something like this: buddies must work out their same-sex anxieties through violence, the more obnoxious, the better. It’s of little consequence that Dave is supposedly making this Herculean effort toward emotional health in order to please his completely perfect girlfriend Linda (Marisa Tomei). She’s been so patient with Dave, she so wants him to succeed, and she so undermines him at every step.
That sweet Linda becomes an object of exchange between Buddy and Dave only underscores what the rest of the film has already triple-underscored: boys love giving wedgies and head-butts, shooting water pistols, swinging baseball bats, driving fast, tackling monks, and threatening transvestites with genital-related brutality. Only when Dave comes to realize all this will he be truly happy. That is, managed.