'Anger' is all the rage

"Anger Management" is one of several recent movies that make me think Hollywood comedies are getting more, well, angry.

The most obvious symptom is what I call the Obligatory Fistfight Scene, where two characters duke it out in some way the filmmakers think is quirky or cute.

"Head of State" has two brothers punching away at each other. "Bringing Down the House" pits two women in a comic brawl. In the aptly titled "Anger Management," fisticuffs fly between a businessman and - no kidding - a Buddhist monk.

Roughhouse comedy scenes have existed for centuries, of course. What's striking about pictures like these is the sense of hard-smacking body contact they convey, partly through editing - the images collide in quick, violent cuts - and partly through sound effects, which give every blow its own jolt of nerve-whacking noise. Viewed out of context, these scenes would appear more nightmarish than amusing.

It suggests to me that Hollywood's opinion of young moviegoers has sunk lower than ever, with cartoonish violence now seen as a surefire way of coaxing automatic laughs, right up there with body-part jokes and puns on four-letter words. In this case, the formula points to a growing hardness and ill humor in contemporary pop culture.

The Obligatory Fistfight Scene is regrettable, because otherwise "Anger Management" is one of the season's more entertaining movies. Thanks go mainly to its stars: Jack Nicholson, a thoughtful actor with a longtime gift for comedy, and Adam Sandler, a comic actor with a growing gift for thoughtfulness.

Well, thoughtfulness may be too strong a word, but Mr. Sandler has been eager to stretch his talents. "Punch-Drunk Love" was his first step - a comedy aimed at grownups, and grownups with a taste for offbeat humor, at that.

"Anger Management" is the second step, teaming Sandler with a veteran star and earning many of its laughs through well-developed contrasts between their personalities. As in "Punch-Drunk Love," his character has an undertone of lifelong insecurity and barely repressed rage. These qualities suit the klutzy persona he cultivated in earlier films, and Sandler is canny enough to bring out their deeper implications when the script allows.

It certainly allows in "Anger Management," where Sandler plays a businessman prone to antagonistic outbursts, continually landing in court after venting his wrath. A judge lets him avoid jail by signing up with an anger therapist (Nicholson) who's as eccentric as the cranks he's supposed to cure. Taking the job seriously, the shrink promptly moves in with his patient, sparking predictably anarchic results.

Directed by Peter Segal from David Dorfman's screenplay, the film is basically an antic variation on the "Odd Couple" idea, juicing it up with a conspiracy subplot, bits of psychobabble poking fun at pop psychology, and cameo appearances by various celebrities.

Nicholson isn't exactly subtle - he has a weakness for mugging that director Segal doesn't always keep under control - but Sandler is terrific, playing a potentially over-the-top part with an understatement that's downright minimalist at times. I can't think of another current comedian who conveys so much comic emotion.

The movie's best scenes are the ones that follow his lead, not banging us over the head with humor. At a time when screen comedy has its own problems with anger management, Sandler's self-possessed style is as refreshing as it is funny.

Rated PG-13 for comic violence and sexual humor.

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