Adam Sandler’s last movie Punch Drunk Love (2002) saw him team up with everyone’s favourite ultra-hip director Paul Thomas Anderson. This time he’s joined forces with Big Jack, a man who has been cool and credible for forty years. Most critics have seen it as little more than a clever commercial ploy to tap into each others respective markets – but is it really that cynically simple? In both this and Punch Drunk Love, Sandler’s formula has remained exactly the same: the downtrodden everyman who fights back against the system and wins. It may be typecasting of sorts, but it also signifies a refusal to change his persona simply because critics don’t like it.
Sandler plays David Buznik, an advertising exec who meekly takes abuse from his boss, and cannot kiss his girlfriend in public due to a traumatic (and hilarious) event in childhood. On a business flight he sits next to Dr. Buddy Rydell (Nicholson), and soon finds himself engaged in an argument with a flight attendant about a missing radio headset. Before David knows it he is being accused of abusive behaviour, and finds himself in court for assault. The judge sentences him to twenty hours of anger management therapy, and on arrival he finds the therapist to be none other than Buddy. Buddy turns out to be insane, with a group of equally insane patients including ex-army vet Chuck (John Turturro). Anything that David does gets him deeper into trouble, and after a fight in a bar (which he actually tried to prevent) he is back in court and given the choice – a year in prison or a month with Buddy. Buddy moves in, takes a liking to his patient’s girlfriend Linda (Marisa Tomei), and David’s world steadily goes mad.
Much like Kafka’s K, David’s rational attempts to get out of increasingly irrational situations force him deeper and deeper into a mess that is beyond his control. It’s a perfect comic setup used to wonderful effect in this film. David’s fight in the bar, for example, is started by his therapy ‘Anger Partner’, Turturro’s wonderfully insane Chuck: he looks over at two men at the bar and mutters: "Did you hear that guy? He just mumbled something about me. I think it was anti-Semitic." "Are you Jewish?" "No. But I could be". Chuck starts the fight, David tries to stop him, gets set upon by the man’s blind friend and the flailing white stick smacks the waitress behind him – cut to the courtroom with a bemused David found guilty of assault, again. As with many of the moments in this film, you cannot help cringeing with agony and glee as Buddy forces David into situations which he is forced (by law) to play along with – such as the scene where Buddy halts the car in the middle of Brooklyn Bridge traffic and forces David him to sing the whole of ‘I Feel Pretty’ in order to "centre himself". In such scenes Jack Nicholson shines, revelling in his manic role and defying the limitations that are often imposed on actors of his age.
Much of the humour is far from sophisticated but extremely funny: for example David’s inept lawyer throwing a tennis ball at the blind man’s head in a failed attempt to prove he can see. Some of it falls flat, and the second half of the film is guilty of moments of smug self-satisfaction: Jon McEnroe appears in a group therapy session, and Mayor Giuliani crops up in a rather conceited cameo in the finale.
This is, unfortunately, where all Sandler films fall down. The endings are always nauseatingly sugar-sweet. It is far more fun watching Sandler’s ordinary guy in nightmarish situations, where the comedy originates from a darker place than his endings care to admit. If this film was directed by Billy Wilder, the darkness would have endured, but this kind of comedy is not a bad second. Sporadically hilarious, it’s a bizarre blend of Kafka and Zuker/Abrahams/Zuker, with an unnecessary dose of romantic comedy thrown into the mix.