The Nation's film critic Stuart Klawans is author of the books Film Follies: The Cinema Out of Order (a finalist for the 1999 National Book Critics Circle Awards) and Left in the Dark: Film Reviews and Essays, 1988-2001. His film criticism and reviews for The Nation won the 2007 National Magazine Award. When not on deadline for The Nation, he contributes articles to the New York Times and other publications.
Here's our man, starring in a movie about himself.
If you've seen Pleasantville--the story of teenagers who are
magically transported from 1990s reality into 1950s television--you know
that its writer-director, Gary Ross, has a sly respe
It's always good fun to see a boy wax romantic over the first girl to
give him a handjob--and if the boy should be a black-hatted Jew, the fun
is only improved.
This Independence Day, the symbolic struggle being waged on thousands of
screens across the Empire pits Reese Witherspoon against Arnold
Schwarzenegger, gooey-sweet girl against impassive (but
I have often been asked the difference between movie reviews and film
criticism; and after much thought, I've decided the answer is about one
Romeo Dallaire has the name of a silent-movie star and a face to match:
clear eyes, ample mustache, chin of cleft granite.
In the film from which there is no escape and no going back, The
Matrix, the writer-director team of Andy and Larry Wachowski
presented a grim choice between truth and illusion.
This week, all true movie lovers will rush to see a violent and
fantastic special-effects thriller, in which a character endowed with
uncanny powers rips through the veil of illusion that is no
International cinema has an irresistible new pair of reprobates:
middle-aged brothers who can do no right in their lives and no wrong
before the camera.
The film begins with a federal marshal intoning "This is a very
difficult time for our country" and ends with the singing of the
national anthem, performed before Rudy Giuliani himself. Between these
moments comes a journey of emotional healing, undertaken by an average
American Joe (or Dave, actually) who
can rightly describe himself as "a pretty nice guy." Too nice, perhaps.
Although this quiet hero lives underneath an Army recruitment billboard,
Dave has grown used to letting others push him around. He can--he
must--learn to stand up for himself. So must we all.
I affirm that the preceding paragraph is entirely descriptive and
contains no interpretation, except for that "So must we all" part, which
is hard to avoid. Such is the message delivered to a troubled America by
Anger Management, the movie in which Adam Sandler shows the way toward
national renewal by getting angry, and also really feeling his lust for
Jack Nicholson. I recommend it to everyone.
Now, I know there are skeptics among you. Some dismiss all Hollywood
movies as commercial products, incapable by nature of rising to the
level of art. (When art lovers want to watch moving images these days,
they turn to Matthew Barney's Cremaster cycle. Barney has taken to
embedding DVDs of his films into limited-edition sculptures, which then
sell for the price of a nice vacation home.) Others admit that Hollywood
movies may occasionally become artlike; but since the medium is
collaborative and famously prone to compromise, there are people who
doubt that an Adam Sandler comedy can mean anything, except in the
haphazard, semiconscious way that calls for ideological decoding. That
Anger Management might develop a coherent argument, point by point--that
it might think--is itself unthinkable.
So let's put Anger Management to the test. Granted, it is twice over a
genre picture: a buddy movie (meant to combine the audiences of two
stars) and an Adam Sandler vehicle (which operates by its own
now-familiar rules). If this were fast food, it would come with fries.
But then, maybe we're the ones who shouldn't be too fast.
The story casts Sandler as a 35-year-old corporate drone who abruptly
finds himself enmeshed in a legal proceeding fit for Josef K. Presumed
guilty from the start--and of what, exactly?--he is remanded to the
custody of one Dr. Buddy Rydell (Nicholson), a therapist who specializes
in treating the criminally enraged. This sentence seems not so much
unjust as inexplicable, since it's handed down to a man whose bland,
blinking face is an apology made flesh, whose tenor voice barely has the
strength to force itself through his nose. I might carelessly laugh at
the judge's decision and pass on; but I prefer to factor its incongruity
into the first proposition the movie sets forth, a proposition that
again recalls Kafka: It is absurd to treat a punishment as a cure, or a
cure as punishment.
The movie arrives at the next stage in its argument approximately one
reel later, when Nicholson moves in with Sandler, the better to perform
"full contact" therapy (or punishment). This is the moment when
Nicholson strips away his tweedy, professorial disguise to don a black
beret and shades, so that he may revert to his image as a cinematic lord
of misrule. The proposition here, I suppose, is that the person given
power over you to punish or cure might turn out to be a fraud or madman.
Sandler reasonably fears this possibility, which the audience, too, is
led to entertain, given the predatory looks that Nicholson keeps
stealing at his charge--predatory in a lounge-lizard way, I mean. No
sooner has Nicholson settled into the apartment than he's bedding down
naked with Sandler, demanding to see his penis, forcing him to sing
about being gay and taking him cruising for transvestite hookers. Third
proposition: The fraud or madman given power over you wants immediate
access to your body. Or maybe he won't be satisfied until you want
access to his.
By the way, did I mention that Sandler fears sudden, unprovoked assaults
below the waist, perpetrated by other men? That's why he's always
scanning the perimeter for danger, in a shlemiel's version of post-
September 11 anxiety; and that's why it's interesting that this
alertness to criminal threats (at a very difficult time for our country)
should temporarily be resolved into a psychological problem, through the
force of Nicholson's assaults.
Let's say there's a rupture of personal boundaries. (As description,
this is a fair minimum.) Such interpenetration is evidently needed
before Sandler can question himself seriously, so that he may wonder,
for the first time, whether he does need help. Self-questioning is also
needed to make criminal guilt go away. Once Sandler begins to yield,
Nicholson willingly announces his patient's innocence, in a speech that
may be insincere but makes an impressive racket. Through a form of
sexual submission, Sandler has changed himself from a potential
terrorist (a ticking bomb, as they say) into a loyal American, which in
this context means being a nut-case pure and simple.
But as I said, "pure and simple" is only temporary. Like a bright
teenager who's just picked up some Freudian jargon, the movie goes
through a phase of explaining everything psychologically and then,
fortunately, moves on. I think it would have been unsatisfyingly simple
just to say that wars are made by homophobes who obsess over basket
size; and the screenwriter of Anger Management, David Dorfman,
apparently agrees with me, since he complicates the argument during a
third act that sometimes plays shakily but is always worth thinking
about. To complete its train of reasoning, Anger Management reintroduces
the motif of crime, forces Sandler to act in a civic arena and demands
that his problems be solved not through private candor but by public
Without giving away too many of the jokes, I can say that this
conclusion involves a significant relaxation of official vigilance
against surprise attacks, accompanied by an assertion of the ties of
community; and by a stroke of cinematic integrity, both these actions
are conveyed through a well-known convention of the Adam Sandler movie,
the celebrity cameo appearance. As the famous faces pass by, you're left
with the impression that everyone in New York City, Dave excepted, had
already known Dr. Buddy Rydell. Now Dave, too, is at home in the big
group, which functions (to Kafka's astonishment) as a kind of benevolent
Q.E.D. I need add nothing more than that I laughed out loud about thirty
times, or approximately once every three minutes, with background smiles
and chuckles left unclocked. Peter Segal directed, efficiently for the
most part, with an obvious determination to put Sandler and Nicholson
together in the frame as often as possible (not a foregone conclusion,
in today's buddy pictures). The fine supporting cast is headed by the
ever-welcome Marisa Tomei as Dave's long-suffering girlfriend.
Did I mention he has a girlfriend? Did I say he's accused of being a
chronic woman-beater? It occurs to me that my point-by-point reading of
Anger Management is coherent but incomplete. So go--fill in the blanks.
Christopher Guest's comedies are pretty much free of celebrity cameos,
but they, too, seem like community affairs, since they're made with an
ever-widening circle of friends. A core group that includes Eugene Levy,
Catherine O'Hara, Bob Balaban, Fred Willard, Parker Posey and Larry
Miller worked with Guest in Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show, two
mock documentaries about low-grade forms of show business. Now these
performers, joined by about a dozen other lunatics, are helping Guest
make not-quite-loving fun of yet another orphan genre of the
entertainment business: folk music.
As an object of satire, this would seem to be as unnecessary as it gets.
Searching for some reason for the existence of A Mighty Wind--a title to
bring out the sixth-grader in all of us--you might imagine that Guest
wants to laugh at those paunchy, graying people who still look back,
with earnest nostalgia, on their acoustic-strum youth.
I'm talking to you, hypocrite Nation reader--my lookalike! My brother!
But then, what Guest has always liked best in his characters is their
unstoppable, otherworldly belief in themselves, or rather in an image
that no setback or indignity can shatter. With grinning amazement at
such optimism, Guest now presents the ultimate show of the self-deluded:
a reunion concert in New York City featuring three folk-music acts of
the 1960s. They are The New Main Street Singers (a sweater-wearing
"neuftet" featuring John Michael Higgins, Jane Lynch and Parker Posey);
the love-bird duo of Mitch & Mickey (Eugene Levy and Catherine
O'Hara); and the less-than-stellar Folksmen (Guest, Michael McKean and
Harry Shearer--the same guys who were Spinal Tap, now playing identical
roles relative to one another but performing ditties about the Spanish
Civil War, or a train wreck in a coal mine).
All three acts are delectable, as are the showbiz oddities who gather
around them; but the most engaging of all are Mitch & Mickey. In a
departure from the previous movies, which featured balanced ensembles,
Guest has made this duo the focus of A Mighty Wind. The disadvantage is
unevenness; sometimes the film sags, when it turns to characters who
aren't fully developed. The benefits are two performances of
contrasting, demented intensity from O'Hara and Levy. As Mickey, O'Hara
seems to vibrate slightly from keeping in check her rage against Mitch.
After decades of separation, he remains to her the most powerful figure
in the world. To the audience, he's a guy who shuffles through the movie
in a daze, popping his eyes at the phantoms that hover before his face
and swallowing his words like spoonsful of codeine-laced cough syrup,
never quite understanding what Mickey's so upset about.
You should know that the climactic concert, sung and played by the
actors themselves, was recorded as a live performance. A wonderful
decision. It gives you all the fun of participating, without the
embarrassment of actually being there.