The premise isn’t bad. Through a set of circumstances that are no fault of his own, a mild-mannered and much-put-upon man finds himself in court charged with assault. Being a first-time offender and all, he’s assigned by the judge to an anger management program. The program turns out to be run by a short-fused lunatic who’s more of an embodiment than a manager of anger. He takes a special interest in his court-appointed client, to the point of not only following him around all day long but moving into his apartment to live with him. It sounds like a neat variation on The Odd Couple with the id monster and the milquetoast battling their way toward some kind of Freudian conciliation.

The casting, though dicey, isn’t bad either. The victimized sap, Dave Buznik, is played by Adam Sandler — and while his lippy, everyman persona was all wrong for Mr. Deeds, it was well-used by Paul Thomas Anderson in Punch-Drunk Love, where the character’s feelings of rage and inadequacy weren’t sublimated into smart-ass one-liners. To play Buznik, Sandler must remain mostly muted, which ain’t a bad idea. The part calls for him to be less a straight man than a counterpoint to his raging therapist, Dr. Buddy Rydell, played by Jack Nicholson. For Nicholson, who has given inspired comic performances in the oddest places (e.g. The Shining), portraying this kind of over-the-top grotesque would seem like a cakewalk, not a fully developed character but something that he (and potentially the audience) could have fun with.

Unfortunately, the movie starts to go bad from the beginning and, apart from a few funny, if laboriously engineered bits, it never really recovers. The fault isn’t with the stars but with David Dorfman’s script and Peter Segal’s clunky direction.

Although one might hope from the premise and the pairing of Sandler and Nicholson that something a little different was afoot here, it quickly becomes apparent that this has been designed as a typical Sandler vehicle, i.e. a series of juvenile jokes haphazardly strung together with large doses of cliché shoved up the cracks in between. People continually do things not because they make any sense, even for these thinly drawn characters, but because they’re in the service of whatever the joke is (although there’s a twist-coda at the end which explains why some of the characters’ motives seem so obscure, but by then it’s too late to care). And since the jokes never go beyond transgressive–lite — they’re inoffensively offensive — it’s obvious that they’re being aimed at diehard Sandler fans, their effectiveness being dependent on the audience’s underdeveloped sense of humor.

So it all doesn’t amount to much. Nicholson’s mercurial maniac is intermittently amusing, though nobody seems to notice that his character is less interested in anger management than anger release. But then this is a movie where a Buddhist monk refers to Buddha as “our God,” a fair indication of Dorfman’s cluelessness. The film also has almost as many cameos as Around the World in 80 Days, and they’re all as equally pointless, ranging from what-a-waste (Harry Dean Stanton) to has-he-no-shame (Rudy Giuliani).

Even when there’s an indication that the filmmakers know how lame things are getting, they still take a lazy, conventional approach. For example, Dorfman obviously knows that the big Yankee Stadium proposal scene at the end is a cliché, because the Dave-Sandler character acknowledges that he was trying to come up with the corniest thing possible.

But then Dorfman and Segal don’t do anything new with it except use it to adhere to the current rule that every egregiously mainstream movie should have at least two or three climaxes, generally in a mode larger, if not broader than what has preceded them — so that the tinge of exhaustion that the audience feels as the credits begin to roll will give them the impression that they’ve gotten their money’s worth. Actually they’ve just been pummeled into senselessness, assuming that they weren’t already in that condition when they walked into the theater.

Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].

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