Strangers in a Strange Land
Ah, hubris - attentive masochists will recall that, before last week's doggy-paddle through the lagoon of fond remembrance, I took the opportunity to proudly proclaim that prior to Punch Drunk Love I had never paid to see an Adam Sandler movie, and that anyway that didn't count, it was a special case what with it being an art movie and all.
Well, let me tell you, kids, you should never go shooting your mouth off about things like that because would you believe that this week I found myself trundling along to see Sandler's latest offering, Anger Management. Obviously, there is no safe dose where Sandler is concerned - if you want to stay clear of the slippery slope to critical damnation, total abstinence is the only path to follow.
Anger Management, directed by Peter Segal, sees Sandler playing, as usual, a dweeby, dorky, sports-loving, romantic, violent psychotic. On this occasion his name is Dave. After an altercation with the flight attendants on an internal flight snowballs out of control Dave finds himself sentenced to anger management therapy with the unorthodox Dr Buddy Rydell, portrayed with predictable sensitivity and restraint by Jack Nicholson. Buddy's approach to therapy seems to be to manipulate Dave into situations where fisticuffs, property damage and ritual humiliation are the most likely outcomes, which causes his patient some concern. Will Dave be able to escape from Buddy's clutches and find permanent happiness with his girlfriend Linda (Marisa Tomei)?
Well, frankly I couldn't have cared less about that by the end of the story, but there is much fun to be had along the way, even though this is a movie whose IQ slowly deteriorates over the course of its duration. Once a worryingly crass flashback is out of the way, the film's first fifteen minutes are by far its sharpest and wittiest: Sandler's entirely justified complaints to airline staff are met with chilly stares and the mantra 'Our country's going through a difficult time right now' - this kind of mockery of the USA's post-September 11th mindset is startlingly edgy material for a mainstream comedy, and it's followed up with some equally good gags at the expense of political correctness and over-litigiousness.
But once this is done with, something rather odd happens to the film. It appears to turn into a sort of holiday resort for well-known and respected character actors who fancy a bit of a break and the chance to do things they don't normally get to. And so a host of familiar faces swarm into view, all of them seemingly intent not so much on going over the top as actually physically launching themselves into orbit. The roll call includes John Turturro, Woody Harrelson, John C Reilly, Heather Graham, Harry Dean Stanton and Luis Guzman.
Ringmaster of this demonic cavalcade is, of course, Jack. Jack Nicholson has twelve Oscar nominations. Write that down on a piece of paper, take it into the theatre with you, and keep looking at it, because you will need some physical evidence of the fact just to reassure yourself that your memory isn't playing up. Remember the subtlety, nuance, and texture he brought to his role in About Schmidt? Well, hang on to that thought as none of those things are on display here. This is Nicholson almost as self-parody, a crazed, priapic wild man. His eyebrows bounce around like kittens on a hotplate, and his grin is so broad the ends are in different time zones. One almost feels sorry for Sandler, who visibly quails at the prospect of having to compete with all this and in the end settles for playing straight man, and in a rather restrained fashion at that.
This is not without its charms and there are a good many laughs along the way. But the plot is a collection of set pieces, an episodic shambles that starts running out of steam very fast, and the climax drowns in glutinous, all-American sentimentality of the most objectionable kind - it's not helped by smug cameos from John McEnroe and Rudy Giuliani, amongst others.
For all Nicholson's prominence in the advertising, and indeed plot, of this film, don't be under any false impressions. This is traditional Adam Sandler fare all along the line, distinguished only by the presence of Nicholson and company, who manage to simultaneously seem horribly incongruous yet also the best thing about the film. When Sandler has to carry the film on his own, it's a grim and joyless slog - but his co-stars are around enough to make this brainless, insubstantial fun. Still, a bit of a missed opportunity.