"Anger Management" is a painfully strained yet fitfully amusing comedy with those two unlikely bedfellows Adam Sandler and Jack Nicholson. As was revealed in the film's overly explicit trailer, Sandler is in his standard film persona as the meek and inhibited Dave Buznik, a man who has been picked on by others his whole life. He is now victimized by being falsely accused and convicted of assault on a flight attendant, while on a plane ride from hell. Sentenced to an anger management course taught by Nicholson's Dr. Buddy Rydell, he must confront his inner demons, the ones he's run from all these years.
This is a premise so thin you could read the Bible on a pinhead through it, more like an updated Buster Keaton film than any textured contemporary story: The core presenting problem, so to speak, is that Dave is too shy and inhibited to kiss his girlfriend Linda (Marisa Tomei) in public. Really. Was it not possible for writer David Dorfman to come up with something more believable? Even Buster Keaton wasn't shy about kissing his girl; just check out "The General."
At any rate, Dave and Buddy are now joined at the hip, and along the way we meet some other of Buddy's clients, including John Turturro as Chuck, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder resulting from the conflict in Grenada; and Luis Guzman as Lou, the gay Latin bombshell. There are also cameos by John McEnroe and Bobby Knight (famous temper tantrums, remember?), but nothing comes of them.
What we're left with is a repetitious series of encounters that don't even bother straining for credibility. There's Andrew (Allen Covert), Dave's rival for Linda, whose only attribute seems to be his foot-long hot dog; and John C. Reilly as Dave's childhood bully Arnie Shankman, now a Buddhist monk who's renounced violence. Heather Graham plays a beautiful bar pickup who turns out to hate herself for first being too fat and then too thin. Woody Harrelson gets two cameos, first as the transvestite hooker Galaxia, and then as a security guard at Yankee Stadium, where what should have been the film's final scene is played out before a Yankee game, with Rudy Giuliani bringing the two lovers together for a public kiss. However, trite as that ending would have been, it at least would have had the virtue of hewing to the film's internal logic. But in a last-second reversal of all we've seen before, the film adds a shameless new ending that will have you rolling your eyes in disbelief and scurrying to get out of the theatre.
As it happens, I like Adam Sandler for his ability to underplay emotion and make it believable, and "Punch Drunk Love" was high on my best-of-2002 list. And though I often cringe at Jack Nicholson's shtick, I found his performance here more textured than I had expected. But when everything unravelled in that last scene, I wished only that someone had checked with a grownup before shooting it.