For almost three decades, Adam Sandler has been one of the defining voices of American comedy. His movies have grossed over $2 billion and his most recent stand-up special received positive reviews from both fans and critics, with many noting that it was a refreshing reminder of just how funny the 52-year-old can be. Typically, a discussion of Sandler’s filmography revolves around the early career highs of Billy Madison and The Wedding Singer or the recent lows of Grown Ups 1 & 2 and The Cobbler but one mid-career movie of his tends to get overlooked: Anger Management. And while it probably isn’t considered by many to be the peak of Sandler’s long career, this forgotten movie actually offers a shockingly deep look at the psyche of the modern man.
Before we dive into discussing the movie, we should clarify up top: Anger Management is by no stretch a masterpiece in any cinematic sense. In fact, it features a lot of the lazy and offensive tropes that have plagued the back half of Sandler’s career. There is an entire subplot about Sandler’s character Dave being jealous of his girlfriend Linda’s ex-boyfriend for having a giant dick along with a recurring joke about Dave accidentally committing violence against women. Most minor characters are reduced to one-dimensional caricatures that are often based on cultural stereotypes, mild sexism, or blatant gay panic. There’s also a joke about molesting a mentally handicapped girl that is equal parts tasteless and appalling. Anger Management also, in all honesty, just not as funny as the ridiculous but hilarious films that made Sandler a bonafide movie star in the first place, such as Happy Gilmore or Billy Madison.
So what makes Anger Management worth revisiting? An atypical straight man performance from Sandler. Nicholson gets to have most of the fun in Anger Management but the success of the movie falls solely on Sandler’s shoulders. Up to this point in his career, Sandler had almost exclusively played childish buffoons who had no problem getting their anger off their chest and while those performances may have been good for laughs, it’s fascinating to see him deliver an understated performance that simmers instead of exploding. It may not be as nuanced as his acting in Punch Drunk Love but he still deserves credit for making Dave a character that still feels relevant almost two decades later.
Anger Management is a movie that really should not work but while it’s by no means Sandler’s funniest, most quotable, or critically-acclaimed movie, it features the most complex and compelling relationship in his entire filmography: the tenuous, forced connection between Dave and Dr. Buddy Rydell (Nicholson). For those who don’t remember, Dave and Dr. Rydell end up seated next to each other during a flight and then Dave is forced to attend Dr. Rydell’s anger management therapy after he gets accused of assaulting a flight attendant. Before long, Rydell has moved in with Dave and is going to work with him. Dave is understandably annoyed by Rydell’s assertiveness but it turns out there’s a method to his madness that brings out the best in Dave.
Before he meets Rydell, Dave, in many ways, is experiencing the same problems that haunt most modern men. He has repressed his anger to the extent that he almost exclusively talks in passive-aggressive muttering and thinly-veiled sarcasm. He has no idea how to process or express his feelings in a remotely healthy way and as a result, people are able to walk all over him and push him around while he allows his rage to boil under the surface. Rydell immediately senses Dave’s inner struggle and decides to take it upon himself to get Dave to understand the subtle but important difference between harmful anger and righteous anger.
Of course, this is an Adam Sandler movie, so Dr. Rydell’s methods are a tad, ahem, unconventional. Rather than having Dave confront his feelings over a course of several years of sessions, he instead essentially hi-jacks his entire life to force him to confront his underlying anger as quickly as possible. His strategy is, at best, cartoonish and deeply stupid and, at worst, downright unethical but underneath the wacky hi-jinx, such as Rydell throwing his plate when Dave makes him eggs that are over-medium instead of over-easy, Rydell is simply attempting to get Dave to confront the fact that not knowing how to deal with his emotions has left him psychologically stunted.
And through a truly insane scheme involving Rydell pretending to date Linda, he is able to push Dave past his limits which results in him finally unleashing his anger and nearly assaulting Dr. Rydell. As a result, Dave is able to acknowledge that he does, in fact, have an anger problem but rather than manifesting itself through uncontrolled rage it has made him essentially euthanize his emotions. In a surprisingly mature moment of self-awareness, Dave vows to continue to work on bettering himself and embarks on the path of controlling his anger instead of letting his anger control him. His journey isn’t over by the end of the movie. In fact, it’s just getting started.
So next time you are in the mood to bring some of that Sandler magic into your life, consider giving Anger Management a rewatch. It may not have you laughing as hard as Billy Madison staging a hypothetical battle between shampoo and conditioner or Happy Gilmore getting his ass kicked by Bob Barker but it might just help you do some much-needed introspection. Or, at the very least, you can enjoy John McEnroe in a perfect cameo. Either way, not a bad way to spend a night.
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Anger Management is available to stream on Netflix.