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.