Reel Men

Reel Men


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 speech.

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 conspiracy.

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.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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