Recent history seems to have established a new rule for movie comedy: avoid using songs from “West Side Story” as a gag, especially if you’re going to have them sung by an older star in over-the-top fashion. Robert De Niro did a medley of the Bernstein-Sondheim favorites while feigning insanity in the clunker “Analyze That,” to truly ghastly effect, and now Jack Nicholson, making some of his most extravagant faces–which is saying quite a lot, considering who’s involved–warbles “I’m So Pretty” in duet with Adam Sandler in this feeble farce. (Indeed, the bit gets an undeserved reprise later on.) The result isn’t quite as painful as in the earlier flick, but it’s certainly lame enough.
As a whole, “Anger Management” represents less a plot than a premise that’s milked to death. The script is basically a reverse twist on the 1991 comedy “What About Bob?” In that picture Bill Murray played a lovably troubled patient who inflicted himself permanently on his straightlaced analyst, played by Richard Dreyfuss. Here Sandler (in “Punch Drunk Love” mode) is a milquetoast fellow forced to put himself under the absurdly close care of a lunatic psychologist, played with gusto by Nicholson (reverting to full “Witches of Eastwick” style), after being wrongly convicted of assaulting a stewardess during a flight. What follows is a series of sketches in which Nicholson’s mood-changing Dr. Buddy Rydell bugs and humiliates Sandler’s nebbishy Dave Buznik in a whole variety of ways; unfortunately, the stars have to work under a singular disadvantage–the fact that the material provided by David Dorfman just isn’t very funny. Entirely too much of it is composed of either queasy gay-themed humor or the sort of raucous slapstick violence in which Sandler always seems ready to indulge. The pattern is encapsulated in the two most notable members of Rydell’s therapy group–Luis Guzman’s ostentatiously swishy Lou and John Turturro’s farcically volatile Chuck–and mirrored in such gags as Dave’s discomfort at sharing a bed with Buddy on the one hand and getting into a brawl with a childhood bully-turned-Buddhist monk (a badly-used and understandably unbilled John C. Reilly) on the other. There’s also a romantic subplot involving the long-time girlfriend (a throwaway part for Marisa Tomei) to whom the overly reticent Buznik is unable to commit, which resurfaces in the all-too-predictable finale.
Very little works in the picture. Under Peter Segal’s flat direction Sandler’s sad-sack routine quickly pales and Nicholson’s shtick comes to verge on the desperate. Guzman and Turturro, ordinarily skilled performers, overplay badly in one-note parts. (Indeed, the whole therapy-group business is much less amusing than similar stuff was in the old “Bob Newhart Show.”) Kevin Nealon flames out as Buznik’s doofus lawyer. But even he looks brilliant beside Woody Harrelson, who’s compelled to appear in drag and affect a German accent in a mercifully single scene as a transvestite hooker. (Yes, the movie does sink that low.) A whole raft of people, from Bobby Knight and John McEnroe to Rudy Giuliani, Robert Merrill and a raft of New York Yankees, show up for cameos, to little effect. (Giuliani delivers the “You can do it!” mantra that’s obligatory at the end of Sandler’s underdog sagas, and it must be said that Rob Schneider is missed. Those are words I never imagined having to write.) On the technical side the picture is competently made, but no more.
“Anger Management” isn’t bad enough to get really furious about, but in view of the talent it wastes, mild irritation is certainly in order.