Jack Nicholson's eyes are hooded by brows that leap into circumflexes on command: At his whim they turn the actor's face into a rictus of demented glee or a reptilian death mask. In "Anger Management," Nicholson's collaboration with the comedian Adam Sandler, he adds a black beret and sunglasses to the mix, creating the physical persona of a demonic aging hipster.
Nicholson plays an anger management consultant named Buddy Rydell, who meets Sandler's character, Dave Buznik, on an airplane and then proceeds to foment a confrontation between Buznik and a flight attendant. The altercation escalates until the woman's arm is broken, and Buznik is assigned to an anger management program that is administered by -- who else -- Buddy Rydell. Rydell then insinuates himself into Buznik's life, moving into his apartment, moving in on his girlfriend (Marisa Tomei) and ultimately goading and provoking Buznik into confronting his past and getting over the psychological issues that have held him back all these years.
In a weird way, Dave Buznik is an unfunny, less interesting analogue to the character Sandler played in his breakthrough performance last year in Paul Thomas Anderson's "Punch-Drunk Love." A mild-mannered get-along guy, Buznik is occasionally given to violent outbursts of frustration, like pounding his telephone on the office desk. Except that what's eating at Buznik isn't rage so much as shame, a small detail that makes "Anger Management" a mere shaggy-dog story, albeit a loud, crude and frenetic one.
But by this time it can be fairly surmised that Adam Sandler fans don't come to his movies for the taut narrative line. And in the case of the cannily packaged "Anger Management," viewers are presumably supposed to be drawn to the prospect of watching the interplay between Nicholson and Sandler (together at last?). A more inauspicious pairing could hardly be conceived: Next to Nicholson's wild mugging and unhinged expressiveness, Sandler's blank, doughy countenance seems duller than ever. His chief thespian instrument is his voice -- an unpleasant, nasal croak -- that trills into a baby-talk falsetto during the movie's set piece, a duet with Nicholson on "I Feel Pretty." The scene is sandwiched between all manner of rank jokes about bodily functions, sexuality and violence (a joke involving the molestation of a mentally ill teenager is just one example of the scathing wit on hand).
Trying desperately to draw attention from the absence of a screenplay or coherent direction, "Anger Management" trots out cameo after cameo: John Turturro plays a manic Grenada war veteran, Woody Harrelson is a Teutonic drag queen, Bobby Knight and John McEnroe turn up as two of Rydell's clients, Heather Graham delivers a heart-rending turn dressed in a Red Sox bra with brownies smeared all over her face, and John C. Reilly plays a Buddhist monk who winds up two cheeks to the wind after a monastery brawl. They all deserve better -- even Bobby Knight -- but perhaps nothing in "Anger Management" is as dispiriting as the sight of Rudolph Giuliani in the film's climactic scene at Yankee Stadium, yelling "Give her a five-second Frencher!" Not exactly a Churchillian moment for the man who saw a nation and a city through their direst hour.
It's a remarkable, if appalling, spectacle of self-abasement. But of course, that's Sandler's specialty -- he's among the chief purveyors of bread and circus to mass audiences who get their kicks from other people's humiliation and their own infantilization. There are those who provide the same service with at least a modicum of warmth -- the Farrelly brothers come to mind -- but Sandler might be the most arrogant and cynical of them all. At a recent screening, I noticed a perhaps inadvertent self-referential twist early on in "Anger Management," when Buddy guffaws idiotically at a movie in which two men struggle with an errant garden hose. Later, while watching Sandler go through the enervated motions of what is essentially the same derivative humor, actual viewers delivered the exact same laughs. Perhaps no one in Hollywood today has made such a success of despising his own audience.
Anger Management (101 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for crude sexual content and language.