Nicholson and Sandler show chemistry in an unlikely, but funny tale of therapy.
Dave Buznik (Adam Sandler) will one day inherit the earth, as there are few as meek as he. Working as a glorified secretary while doing all of the real work for his oafish boss, Dave dreams of one day getting the recognition and promotion that he deserves. Not the type given to outward shows of emotion, thanks in part to a public humiliation from his childhood, he shakes hands with his girlfriend at the airport. He's on his way to St. Louis to deliver a speech for said boss until an increasingly bizarre series of events leads to him being arrested for an entirely unjustified charge of air-rage.
He's sentenced to attend anger management classes with the unconventional Dr. Buddy Rydel (Jack Nicholson). Buddy's anger management class is populated with a group of misfits who at least have some reason to be whacky and unconventional, suffering from various degrees of temper tantrums. There are two angry bisexual porn starlettes, an angry sporting fan, a very angry man generally in Chuck (John Turturro, absolutely superb) and an angry camp guy called Lou (Luis Guzman, similarly superb and having a blast going against type). Throughout the entire movie the supporting cast performs as well, if not better than the leads which is a reasonable achievement given their quality. Also present in Buddy's therapy class in a certain John McEnroe, although he quickly grows too angry and has to lie on the floor for a while to cool off.
Buddy decides much to Dave's chagrin that he must attend the full course of anger management rather than the evaluation initially scheduled. Chuck is assigned to him as a rage control partner, the two eventually heading off to a bar despite Dave's concerns about Chuck's general stability. This proves well founded as Chuck quickly picks a fight with the biggest guy in the bar, and as part of desperately trying to break it up Dave accidentally clobbers a blind old man.
He's sentenced to either a stay at the big house or have Buddy move in with him for an intensive counseling course, and so the comic hijinks begin. This immediately puts a strain on Dave's relationship with his long-suffering girlfriend Linda (Marisa Tomei), though initially Dave is too busy trying to get rid off Buddy and his strange habits. His work colleagues aren't too chuffed with having to put up with Buddy wandering around insulting them at work, and it's even distracting Dave from completing his important clothing for obese cats catalogue.
Buddy puts Dave through a series of tests, designed to show him the proper ways of dealing with anger. He espouses his theories on the two manifestations of anger, the guy at the checkout screaming at the cashier for not taking his coupons, and the cashier who smiles and nods politely, bottling it up before one day shooting everyone in the store. Buddy reckons Dave is the cashier. The hoops he makes Dave jump through are odd indeed, and frequently hilarious. He is introduced to an unbelievably scary looking Bavarian transvestite hooker Galaxia (a nearly unrecognisable Woody Harrelson, or perhaps I didn't want to recognise him - it's frightening) as part of an introduction to righteous anger, which is amusing in a disturbing way.
Even Heather Graham makes an appearance as Kendra, a random girl at a bar Buddy orders Dave to pick up with some unbelievable chat up lines which unbelievably work. Being already spoken for though, he can't go through with sleeping with her (The fool! It's Heather Graham for Pete's sake!), leading to a impassioned and batty diatribe about her being too fat which only grows more bizarre once Dave says she isn't. Kendra changes tack and declares herself too thin for people to sleep with, stuffing muffins into her mouth then throwing them at a bemused Dave, kicking him out of her house.
For the most part, it's funny because of Sandler's reactions rather than the events themselves. I've never been much of a fan of his roles where he's wandering around being zany, but he's almost a straight man here, as everyone around him seems to have little or no contact with reality, even in passing. His looks of shock, disbelief, befuddlement and even fear are done to an absolute tee as he witness another hare-brained scheme from Buddy or his cohorts.
The few jokes that Sandler does get to make mostly fall flat on their arse, but they aren't frequent enough to hurt the film. Giving him his due, it's little to do with the delivery and all to do with the jokes themselves, referring (I believe) to wholly American pop culture references which didn't seem to translate at all well this side of the pond.
He makes up for this shortcoming in one of the better bits of physical comedy seen this year when Buddy decides Dave must confront his childhood nemesis, bully, and inflictor of aforementioned public humiliation Arnie (John C. Reilly, another member of the ridiculously busy club formed by Colin Farrell and Brian Cox). Arnie's now a Buddhist monk, and is suitably ashamed of his past and apologises. Seeing that this won't lead to any kind of meaningful catharsis, Buddy starts taunting the monks with various remarks he then attributes to Dave, and making fun of Arnie's sister, a mental patient. This is enough to start a fight between the two, a lovely and incongruous sight. After winning, Dave and Buddy make good their escape from an angry mob of monks brandishing water pistols and laughing like drains, and the audience laughs along with them.
Just to give us some sort of goal to work towards a finale, Linda and Dave agree to separate after Linda grows tired of waiting for him to propose, so a suitable chunk of the film is devoted to getting her back, which is a fairly hackneyed device by this point but it works well here, and give some structure to what might otherwise have become a scattered and messy story. While less amusing when having to work to this, it still manages to remain funny throughout, and that's really all you can ask for.
The film probably would not have worked anything like as well if the cast behind it weren't so superb. The script is pretty funny on it's own but hardly redefines belly laughs, but great performances across the board make it so much more enjoyable. Nicholson is on inspired form, his facial transformations from raging, anger-filled Satan impersonator to smiling, homily dispensing Cheshire cat impersonator are funny in themselves, and Sandler plays off this to perfection. His double takes and looks of utter shock and bewilderment show that the guy does have talent, and on the back of this and Punch Drunk Love it looks like I may have to revise my principle of ignoring all of his films on release because they invariably suck donkey balls. He still has a long way to go to make up for Little Nicky and Big Daddy though.
The supporting cast is equally great, only Maris Tomel's role feeling underplayed due to a lack of compelling characterisation in the script, but it's vital to have at least one well balanced character in the mix. Guzman, Graham and Harrelson make comparatively tiny roles far funnier than they have any right to be, and John Turturro's unhinged sociopath act is played to such over-the-top perfection as to have some of the best lines in the film. Even despite the strength of the main story, the support leaves you wanting more of their stories, and that can only be a good thing. At 106 minutes, it could perhaps have told more but only at the expense of the pacing of Dave's experiences and eventual quest to get back with Linda, and overall the pacing is about as good as could be imagined.
We could harangue the film for being totally unbelievable and having an equally unbelievable explanation for these events tacked on the admittedly schmaltzy ending, but that's hardly relevant in a comedy. It makes no claims at gritty realism and there's no reason to lambaste it for not containing it. Real life is gritty and realistic, and at best it's boring and usually it's shitty. If I wanted a realistic experience I'll go fill out some tax return forms. As a piece of light entertainment, Anger Management works brilliantly and only a few overly Americanised scenes stop this from being a classic.
Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 4/5 TippyMarks.
Jack Nicholson (Dr. Buddy Rydel)
Marisa Tomei (Linda)
Luis Guzman (Lou)