Anger Management

Beyond therapy

Talk about conflicting impulses. Whenever Jack Nicholson's name appears above a new film, I start calculating the earliest opportunity I can see it. Whenever Adam Sandler's name appears above a film, I start making plans to leave the country. So, when some studio fiend has the idea of putting both their names above the title, it's hard to know whether to laugh or cry - the finest screen actor of his generation paired off with the most irksome goofball comedian of his. In the words of the song, did you ever have the feeling that you wanted to go, and still had the feeling that you wanted to stay away?

The odd thing about Anger Management is that, for the first 20 minutes, it confounds one's expectations by being - go on, admit it - quite good. It also marks the second time this year, after Punch-Drunk Love, that Sandler has been cast against type (that is, the boorish, sentimental type with a silly-ass voice). He plays Dave Buznik, a sweet nebbich who works as an executive at a pet- products company where the boss steals all the credit for his ideas. This is just fine with Dave, who has had a problem with confronting people ever since he suffered a humiliating public exposure of his you-know-what as a kid. A very Sandler moment, this. But it isn't fine at all with his nice girlfriend, Linda (Marisa Tomei), who is fed up with his timidity and his refusal to kiss her in public. If only he could get mad at something for once...

We don't have long to wait. Dave finds himself on a plane next to the passenger from hell - a chuntering, loud-laughing oaf - and through no fault of his own gets involved in a fracas with a flight attendant. David Dorfman's script wittily acknowledges here the way that aeroplanes have become a crucible of the new American sensibility, a sort of tolerance test whose formulaic intro ("This is a very difficult time for our country...") is recited like some neurotic mantra. The scene ends with Dave being arrested and taken off the plane, bundled into court and ordered to undergo "anger management" therapy, or else he serves a jail sentence.

And who should be his counsellor but that chuntering, loud-laughing oaf from the plane, Dr Buddy Rydell (Jack Nicholson), an alleged authority on TAS - Toxic Anger Syndrome. First, he introduces the hapless Dave to his "anger buddy" Chuck (John Turturro), a paranoid ex-marine who used to scream himself to sleep. Then the Doc moves into Dave's apartment - "the lair of the rage rhino", as he calls it - demands to be waited on hand and foot, and even takes over his patient's bed.

And yes, some of this is pretty funny, like the moment Buddy inspects Dave's CD collection and, shaking his head, removes The Best of The Carpenters. "What's wrong with The Carpenters?" asks Dave. "'Close To You'? 'Goodbye to Love'? Songs of madness and obsession - they've got to go." Interest is piqued by wondering where Nicholson, with electro-shock hair and professorial beard, might take this character. After all, this is an actor who has given masterclasses in anger and its mismanagement: think of his Navy signalman in The Last Detail exploding in front of a bartender ("I am the motherfucking shore patrol, you motherfucker!"); his famous slap-and-shout scene with Faye Dunaway in Chinatown; his psychotic crack-up in The Shining; his "You can't handle the truth" court scene in A Few Good Men - the list could go on. "Temper is the one thing you can't get rid of by losing it," says Buddy to Dave, which sounds like the sort of thing Nicholson would say just prior to blowing his top.

So, we're going to see fireworks, right? Wrong. We're going to see a film that betrays its early promise and lets both leads simply coast along to their paycheck (some mighty accounting here). We're going to see the shrink insisting on applying "stress-reduction techniques" such as halting traffic while his patient is coerced into singing a tune from West Side Story. We're going to see them play practical jokes on one another while famous faces (Woody Harrelson, John McEnroe, Rudy Giuliani) contribute the slightest of celebrity cameos. What started out as a promising satire on the unnecessary intrusions of psychotherapy becomes a lame Punch-and-Judy show between its two stars, one of whom really should know better.

As for Sandler, the film seems almost engineered to justify his brand of loser-turned-pugilistic hero, a transformation effected here when Buddy introduces Dave to the man who used to torment him at school. The joke is that the one-time bully is now a Buddhist monk (played by John C Reilly), and the dust-up that ensues is the film's assurance that Dave has got in touch with his anger and won't be taken advantage of again. He then proceeds to the office, where he buttonholes his boss and demands the promotion that's been kept from him all these years, and the boss snivellingly agrees.

Sixty-odd years ago, the put-upon guy beloved of Capra movies challenged the status quo by proving that he had more mettle and decency than those in authority. Now, it seems, the way to earn the respect of your fellow-men is to insult them and/or beat them up. Should we be disturbed that Americans have not only embraced Sandler as the godhead of comedy but also regard him as a role model? With so much else to lament, it seems irrelevant to add that the plot is a shameless steal from David Fincher's The Game. Forget Anger Management. Whatever happened to Quality Control?