Film of the Week: 'Anger Management'

By STEVE SAILER, UPI National Correspondent  |  April 10, 2003 at 12:14 PM
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LOS ANGELES, April 10 (UPI) -- The important thing to know about "Anger Management," the sure-fire comedy hit starring Adam Sandler and Jack Nicholson, is that it's more of a Sandler movie than a Nicholson movie.

As a human being and role model, Nicholson isn't much, but for more than 30 years he has been a trustworthy brand name indicating movies with smart, strong scripts. "Anger Management," however, is definitely a Sandler project, with his usual entourage of enablers filling assignments up and down the credit list. For example, "Anger Management" uses the same editor Sandler also employed for "Mr. Deeds" and "Little Nicky," which might explain why the comic timing in the actual movie isn't as crisp as in its ubiquitous TV commercials. The screenplay is aimed a little higher on the IQ charts than the typical Sandler contraption, but well below Nicholson's average.

Sandler's character is unjustly arrested and sentenced to take Nicholson's anger management workshop. Nicholson insists upon moving into Sandler's apartment and driving him mad by acting like a sketch comedian doing Jack Nicholson.

This is a can't-miss set up. Much great comedy, from Lewis Carroll through Evelyn Waugh, is based on subjecting a humble innocent like Sandler to a world of self-assured lunatics like Nicholson.

Neither actor stretches. Sandler plays a milder version of The Adam Sandler Character. Here's he's an office drone with self-esteem problems, rather than his full-blown defective but loveable man-child. Just as the aging Robert De Niro has taken to playing De Niro! in an ever-growing series of comedies, Nicholson's portrayal of a psychotic psychologist self-parodies the legend of Nicholson the wild man.

Jack objects to the breakfast poor Sandler cooks him (as in "Five Easy Pieces"), smashes a car window with a baseball bat (as the real Jack did in 1994 a few blocks from my house, except he actually used a 2-iron and the driver was still in the car), and horns in on Sandler's girlfriend, played by Marisa Tomei.

"Anger Management" is not precision-guided humor, however, but instead uses the human wave approach. Sandler's minions keep dispatching into the struggle battalions of the funny (John Turturro as a pop-eyed maniac who hasn't been right in the head since he got back from the war ... in Grenada; Woody Harrelson and his mighty jaw as history's ugliest transvestite; and Luis Guzman, the Puerto Rican Danny DeVito, as a sort of human potbellied pig) and the unfunny (cameos by Rudy Giuliani, Bobby Knight, and Roger Clemens). It's not pretty -- lots of jokes misfire -- but eventually "Anger Management" pounds out quite a few laughs.

In general, having non-actor celebrities play themselves turns out to be more of a distraction than an attraction. For example, the HBO sports agent show "Arli$$" has delivered some of the most ruthless comedy in television history, but because it insists upon having famous jocks woodenly read a few lines in each episode, it has exposed itself to be slammed by the same critics who rave over the inferior "Sex and the City."

Unfortunately, "Anger Management" ultimately tries to explain Nicholson's behavior. The most reasonable answer -- because he's Jack, and Jack is too cool to be bound by any standards of human decency or rationality -- isn't cuddly enough, so we winds up being informed that the preceding 90 minutes was all a charade cooked up between Tomei and Nicholson to get Sandler to uncork the rage bottled up within him and act like Jack.

Normally, I don't give away endings, but that is so groaningly awful that you need to be forewarned not to let it ruin the rest of "Anger Management" for you.

After seeing the film, I was surprised to discover that it's rated PG-13. Evidently, its original R-rating was lowered on appeal.

Studios used to market R-rated films to children, and theaters would obligingly sell them the tickets. After the angry congressional hearings into this in 2000, head Hollywood lobbyist Jack Valenti organized a voluntary crackdown.

Despite predictions of doom, this turned out to be the best thing to happen to the industry economically since the talkies. Just as Michael Medved has been predicting for a decade, R-rated movies were exposed as financially illogical. Last year, none of the top 20 movies was R-rated, yet box office revenues jumped 25 percent from 2000 to 2002.

Unfortunately, the PG-13 category, which accounted for 13 of the top 20, has expanded into an overly broad catchall. These days, the G rating only applies to movies that wouldn't scare preschoolers, and PG is mostly for "Harry Potter"-type films aimed at elementary school students. That leaves PG-13 as the all-purpose rating, but it's losing any meaning to parents as the studios try to squeeze naturally R-rated films into it. Further, lots of parents don't know there's a difference between PG and PG-13.

Therefore, Valenti should introduce a new level between PG-13 and R called R-13.

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