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Anger Management

The combination of Jack Nicholson and Adam Sandler both seems wrong and makes a weird kind of sense. Both have firmly defined screen personas and die-hard fanbases. But wouldn't Nicholson, the wolf who refuses to grow old, seem out of place in the retarded manchild world of Sandler?

Happily (or Gilmorely), in Anger Management, it's Sandler who seems out of place, and it's a good thing. This is one of those rare films in which he tries to actually act, instead of just rely on his easy bag of tricks. (Which, I'll admit, still usually work for me.) Both men play off each other with unexpected ease, but the biggest surprise may be that this film actually has some depth to it, too.

Not that you'll notice while you're laughing.

It opens firmly in Sandler-land, with a young Davey Buznik suffering intense humiliation during his first kiss. Flash forward twenty years or so, though, and the adult Dave lives in a fairly realistic world. He has problems with public displays of affection as a result of his childhood trauma, but his other scars are played more subtly. Dave is a good-hearted loser, but not an unrealistic one.

His emotional repression has taken its toll on his relationship with his girlfriend Linda (Marisa Tomei). Though she displays intense patience with him, he's still nervous that an ex-boyfriend of hers (Sandler regular Allen Covert, appropriately smug) keeps sniffing around.

Enter Nicholson as anger management specialist Dr. Buddy Rydell. As the result of an overblown altercation on an airplane, Davey gets assigned to his class, loaded with quirky characters. Here at Fanboy Planet we're particularly fond of the lesbian pornstars, but John Turturro and Luis Guzman also make memorable impressions, never failing to score a laugh in their scenes.

Doctor Rydell's techniques are unorthodox, to say the least. And David's frustration level grows as his life gets spun more and more out of control.

However, you can't really disagree with Rydell's assessments. The character arcs in this movie sort of sneak up on the viewer, but they make sense, without the wacky hijinks of a Billy Madison or the last minute maudlin of Big Daddy.

Of course, you have to figure that as a comedian, Sandler is doing something right. This film has no fewer than five Oscar nominees co-starring with him (two of them winners). And though he has shared the screen with great actors before, having so many this time around definitely raises his game.

Nicholson, however, could play the game in his sleep. With a few archings of his eyebrows and an expert grasp of which of his two major tones to use at any time, his interplay with Sandler almost makes for a classic comedy teaming. In particular, a scene involving a well-known Broadway musical lifts into pure joy for both the duo and the audience.

That Anger Management doesn't quite fly as a whole seems a shame, and it's hard to pin down why. Director Peter Segal stages things competently, and even though David Dorfman's final script stumbles in its resolution, Segal plays fair with it so its twist has somewhere to come from. But as a director, he works on the surface; the tone and themes of the movie come from the actors and the script, but not the production as a whole.

The script offers glimpses of something more than easy laughs. Though we can find Dr. Rydell's patients funny, we also recognize most of them as real. If we didn't know that repressed rage is a key part of Sandler's persona, the slow unfolding of Dave's real anger problems would feel dead-on. It's a fully realized character, not caricature.

In Dave's initial airplane tussle, the problem stems from post-9/11 anxiety on the part of the flight attendants. (Though it could be interpreted as a criticism of such anxiety; it seems just as likely that the flight attendants are using it as an excuse to slack off at their jobs.) Dave also literally lives in the shadow of a U.S. army recruitment billboard, an image that keeps repeating with no pay-off. If it's product placement, it's an odd one.

Ultimately, Anger Management shies away from its darker statements about American life, in favor of trying to make us all feel good about ourselves. It weakens the film, but no doubt will strengthen the box office.

So it's not a perfect movie. But it is the first 2003 release that I can recommend without reservation. Let us not worry about the classic that might have been, and instead just laugh at a pretty good movie.

What's It Worth? $8

Derek McCaw

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