Three things you must know before seeing Anger Management: 1) It’s not About Schmidt, 2) it’s not Punch-Drunk Love and 3) it’s not anywhere near as funny as its trailer.
I say all this up front because I’ve been in the position of seeing no less than seven people walk out of this movie — mostly because it isn’t About Schmidt, (though at least one person merely dismissed it as “one dirty joke after another”). Myself, I didn’t expect another Schmidt, and I wouldn’t mind it being all dirty jokes if they were just funnier. Or even as funny as the trailer.
There is simply nothing in the film as funny, clever or deliciously over the top as the moment in the trailer that poses the question, “What if your life was in his hands?” as the film cuts to Jack Nicholson at his Mephistofalean best, with the Who’s Roger Daltrey screaming the introduction to “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” Nothing.
I didn’t hate the movie, though I had been prepared to love it — and I came nowhere near that kind of cinematic romance during or after viewing it. That said, this film scores considerably higher than the rest of Adam Sandler’s non-Punch-Drunk Love oeuvre for the simple reason that it’s actually about something. Sure, Anger Management is ultimately botched, and it sinks under the weight of its own telegraphed plot contrivances — not to mention the adherence to its absurd Sandlerian climactic warm-and-fuzzies — yet it’s a film with something on its mind. And that’s a plus.
Unfortunately, the thing on its mind seems to be a literalized explanation of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love … done by persons who didn’t entirely understand that movie in the first place. The setup is very similar, presenting Sandler as Dave Buznick, a nebbishy fellow who designs clothing for obese cats — a bizarre occupation (though not all that far removed from being the designer-plunger entrepreneur in Punch-Drunk) in which all the credit is usurped by his boss (Kurt Fuller, Auto-Focus). But for the fact that Anger Management affords Buznick a girlfriend (Marisa Tomei), his lot in life is pretty interchangeable with that of Punch-Drunk’s Barry Egan. In other words, Buznick is put-upon and gets no respect or credit, but won’t do anything to change that.
However, in Punch-Drunk, the character is constantly showing signs of the pent-up anger and sadness and violence caused by his lot in life. In the new film, it takes the intervention of anger-management guru Buddy Rydell (Nicholson) to get to any of this — and this only takes place because of an event more contrived and preposterous than having the harmonium land at Egan’s feet in Punch-Drunk. Worse, the event (Buznick’s arrest for accosting a flight attendant, something he plainly doesn’t do) becomes even more ludicrous in the final reel’s all-too-obvious explanation.
What Punch-Drunk eloquently and effortlessly suggested was the source of Egan’s violent rages (and by extension, those of nearly all of Sandler’s characters). But Anger Management tries to spell it out for you — with all the subtlety of the requisite flatulence gag that intrudes on the film (I’m sure everyone will be edified by the auditory spectacle of Nicholson coming to terms with this staple of modern wit, something that for me ranked up there with a desire to see Woody Harrelson in drag, which Anger Management also thoughtfully includes). Moreover, the movie at least edges toward the idea that true happiness lies in punching the crap out of someone — a dubious sentiment that is finding increasingly alarming expression in modern comedy (Bringing Down the House and Head of State come to mind).
Comic genius Preston Sturges once opined a theory of comedy that concluded, “A pratfall is better than anything,” but this sentiment seems to have been metamorphosed into something like, “A bone-jarring punch in the face is better than anything.” The outbursts of violence in Punch-Drunk were carefully built up and motivated. But in Anger Management, they’re contrived (even more so when the film’s “surprise” is revealed), or else they simply occur. Punch-Drunk’s cockeyed romance sprang naturally from the film. The moment in Hawaii when the lights magically come on the minute Egan gets Lena (Emily Watson) on the pay phone was a brilliant touch; their subsequent kiss in an empty hotel that suddenly throngs with life of passersby was one of the most gloriously romantic moments in recent movie memory.
So what does Anger Management offer? It makes a big fuss over Buznick’s discomfort with public displays of affection, only to arrive at a sledgehammer variant of that hoary old bit expressed by Dorothy Lamour in 1942’s The Fleet’s In — “I always believed that if a fellow really loved a girl, he’d kiss her in the middle of the Rose Parade.” It doesn’t get any cornier than this, though it’s just the sort of thing that’s apparently central to the Sandler formula when he goes for the goo in the final reel. And therein lies the real problem — he and his buddies (yes, they’re back in force) have tried to craft a Sandler vehicle that straddles his traditional teenage-boy market and the one he tapped with Punch-Drunk. What they’ve ended up with is something that doesn’t really work on either level, but I give them marks for trying.
And, yes, some of the movie is funny. Nicholson is at his eyebrow-arching, scenery-chewing best, but you saw most of his bag of tricks in the trailer. John Turturro’s clearly certifiable character walks a fine line between amusing and frightening, but again the trailer gave away too much (albeit in toned-down form). The entire scene involving Buznick and his childhood-nemesis-turned-Buddhist-monk (the ubiquitous John C. Reilly), however, is pretty good, and there’s one purely delightful moment involving singing “I Feel Pretty” while stopping traffic. But overall, Anger Management is a disappointment. Go to it with low expectations and you might have a fairly good time — just don’t dwell on the movie it might have been.