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Anger Management

Adam Sandler has been enormously successful, mainly on the wings of haphazard and virtually interchangeable lowbrow comedies, but few major stars are more elusive in their appeal: Sandler's man-child sweetness is undercut by a mirthless stare, mush-mouthed line-readings, and an appetite for destruction. Last year's pungent romantic comedy Punch-Drunk Love finally reconciled the split ends of his personality, but only by painting him as a borderline psychopath, albeit one whose violent tendencies arose from a pure heart and noble intentions. With Sandler's newfound respectability and an overqualified cast to match, Anger Management seems primed to bring its star's self-examination to the mainstream, with a story that's smartly tailored to his peculiar brand of good-natured slapstick rage. But after a promising start–boosted by the mere presence of actors like John Turturro, Luis Guzmán, and Harry Dean Stanton in minor roles–Anger Management assumes the lazy posture of other Sandler vehicles, slouching back on a typically random assortment of infantile gags and pain humor. Directed, in the loosest possible sense of the word, by Peter Segal (Nutty Professor II: The Klumps), the film has an unhinged atmosphere that brings out the "Jack!" in Jack Nicholson, whose malevolent grin and cartoon mugging ricochets off Sandler like a tennis ball off concrete. The odd couple is paired up when the latter, a mild-mannered and ineffectual ad copywriter, gets wrongly accused of losing his temper on an airplane, and a judge sentences him to 20 hours of anger-management therapy under Nicholson. Though he seems like a gentle soul, with solid prospects and a healthy relationship with girlfriend Marisa Tomei, Sandler strikes Nicholson as an "implosive" personality, ready to snap at any moment. After a bar skirmish nearly lands Sandler in jail, Nicholson offers an intensive 30-day program in which he moves into Sandler's apartment, follows him everywhere, and relentlessly goads him into confronting the roots of his problem. A few scenes, including an impromptu duet of "I Feel Pretty" from West Side Story, show the demented comedy that might have been, but Anger Management doesn't possess the discipline to peel laughs off its potentially riotous premise. Instead, Segal and company grope desperately for every low gag they can find, whether or not it has anything to do with the story. After a while, the film turns into a demented episode of Hollywood Squares, with credited and uncredited cameos by big stars willing to embarrass themselves: Woody Harrelson as a transvestite hooker, John C. Reilly as a former bully turned peace-loving Buddhist monk, and Heather Graham as a sex-crazed chocoholic who devours cupcakes like a rabid dog. All this seems like a disappointing regression after Punch-Drunk Love, but the Sandler faithful may well consider it a triumphant return to form.

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