Anger Management, written by a novice and directed by the maker of Tommy Boy and the sequel to The Nutty Professor, is the very thing the posters advertise: an inverted Punch-Drunk Love, Paul Thomas Anderson's intimate film of last year about a man whose quiet exterior barely conceals the time bomb within. (Then again, all of Sandler's Hollywood outings have been veiled remakes of their predecessors and, eventually, successors.) Sandler has never played a truly different character; they're the same guy in a different movie, the same short fuse in a slightly different casing (even their names -- Billy, Happy, Sonny, Nicky, Bobby, Barry, etc. -- all sound the same) with a slightly different girl and a slightly different happy ending. But Anderson had compassion for Punch-Drunk's Barry Egan -- not pity, but genuine love for him, the way a father might for a slightly off son he just wanted to see made happy and whole. Writer David Dorfman and director Peter Segal view Dave only as a weakling, a timid yutz who's let the world trample on him until, at last, he is so misunderstood and maligned he's sentenced to anger-management counseling after allegedly threatening a flight attendant who won't bring him headphones. They don't even seem to like the fellow.
The movie's supposed to play like a mismatched-buddy picture, but Nicholson's Dr. Buddy Rydell, the therapist who's out to "cure" Dave, is so outsized he overwhelms Sandler, who comes off as a bit player in his own movie. It's as though all those impulses Nicholson smothered in About Schmidt -- the eyebrows cocked like revolvers and that echo-chamber laugh -- have been unleashed a thousand-fold; the inner Joker within him has been given free rein to wreak havoc on the innocent. His is less a performance than a pastiche of maniacs he's known and loved; it's like watching an American Film Institute tribute dinner compilation reel, with Sandler as the audience held hostage for the homage. (There's even a nod to Nicholson's real-life taking of a golf club to another driver's windshield.) By film's end, all Sandler's left to do is shout at Nicholson variations on the phrase "You damn crazy bastard," which grows increasingly tiresome. What's most astonishing is that a film populated by two mad men can grow so wearying and dull; the movie crawls toward its climax, which is so barmy it's almost surreal.
Dave's not angry, he's just an idiot, allowing Rydell to sucker him into an increasingly insane litany of exploits intended to cure him: picking up a woman by insisting she's about to "make my pants explode," attacking a childhood bully who's become a monk, convincing him to break up with the woman he wants to marry. Dave does nothing for a reason, only because Rydell tells him so, which is less plot progression than a series of setups for gags that fall stunningly flat, never more so than when former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani has to intervene. (Apparently the film takes place in an alternate universe: It's 2003, yet Rudy's still in charge.)
Anger Management exists almost as if to embarrass a startling list of familiar faces: Woody Harrelson appears as a cross-dressing hooker with a German accent, Heather Graham shows up smothered in brownie, Luis Guzman (Sandler's Punch-Drunk co-star) flabbily squeezes into fluorescent belly shirts as a gay man with anger issues, John McEnroe and Bobby Knight make requisite appearances as patients in Rydell's class (though Knight, delivering lines made of wood, thought he was in Sexaholics Anonymous), and John C. Reilly literally flashes his ass as a monk with a former bully's bad attitude. Only Mr. Deeds high point John Turturro, as a (Grenada) war-scarred veteran, emerges unscathed: Dorfman has penned for him the best lines ("I think Eskimos are smug"), and Turturro amps up the absurdity by realizing, unlike his co-stars, that yelling alone doesn't make you funny. Now, Turturro not getting his own movie -- that will make you angry.