Lasciate ogne speranza, voi chi’intrate. How did it come to this? At the height of his power in Hollywood in 1999, Adam Sandler founded his own production company — Happy Madison Productions — as a way to continue making the movies he enjoys. Over the years, Sandler has slowly morphed into a pariah on the landscape of his big-budget studio comedies, some of which seem to be thinly veiled excuses for lavish vacations. But do they truly represent the nadir in the career of one of comedy’s once-brightest stars? Are there any hidden or underrated gems? Is there such a thing as too few fart jokes? Will Ben Sears retain any sense of sanity by the end of this? Join him and find out, as we venture to the Happy Valley.

Writing a screenplay is hard work. If it wasn’t, everyone would do it. Writing a screenplay that is not based on a pre-existing piece of intellectual property is especially difficult. Writing a good screenplay — one that is cohesive and gets the viewer emotionally invested and has something to say — is even harder.

The average moviegoer may not initially recognize a good or bad screenplay. They may choose to focus on the direction, the cinematography, the performances of the cast or the production design. I readily admit that I still struggle with determining how much of a movie’s greatness or awfulness can be attributed to the screenplay. Sometimes the director will make creative decisions to augment or re-write moments that better fit his or her creative vision, and we’re never entirely sure how much of the final result can be attributed to the director, screenwriter, producers or actors unless we can physically see the script as written.

Regardless, it’s clear to me that the screenplay for Anger Management (written by David S. Dorfman) is a mess.

The film’s premise is simple and provides for enough comedic fodder that it’s easy to understand why the film’s stars were drawn to it: Dave Buznik (Adam Sandler) falls into a series of mishaps and legal troubles when he’s mandated to attend anger management therapy at the hands of Dr. Buddy Rydell (three-time Oscar winner Jack Nicholson). As the film goes on, it’s clear that Rydell is the maniac with anger issues and Buznik is the straight man. Oh, and let’s also throw in a subplot about Dave’s relationship with his girlfriend, Linda (Oscar winner Marisa Tomei).

As I’ve said before, Sandler’s ability to yell dialogue in a funny manner is his secret weapon. And Nicholson can believably play psychopathic as well as just about anyone. So what went wrong?

For starters, the film gets way too hung up on making itself more complicated than it needs to be. The plot gets bogged down by reversals, pranks and sleights-of-hand that don’t serve to enlighten the characters. Too often, a plot development gets walked back or over-explained with the equivalent of “I knew that was going to happen.” 

There’s a midpoint scene in which Dave picks up a character played by Heather Graham at a bar only for her to maniacally throw chocolate cake at him in her underwear. While Dave is preoccupied with all of this, Dr. Rydell is busy making the moves on Linda, which could have worked as a setup for the final act (we’ll come back to this). Soon after, it’s revealed that Graham was an actress hired by Dr. Rydell — who comes clean and explains why, but it still makes no sense, either for the character or the plot.

Anger Management had plenty of potential as an adult-oriented comedy, but somebody along the way was too timid to push the envelope and give the film an R-rating. In fact, the first R-rated Happy Madison film wouldn’t come much later until 2012’s That’s My Boy, when much of the public consciousness had moved on from Sandler as a comedic leading man. Would throwing in a few F-bombs redeem the movie as a whole? Maybe not, but it would at least keep Anger Management from playing it safe. The movie sets up plenty of opportunities to go dark but always stops just short of the tipping point. 

Nicholson makes a meal out of his role as an agent of chaos, but it’s hard to discern his overall purpose given the twists and turns through which the script forces him. You never fully know whether to take Dr. Rydell at face value or if he has something else up his sleeve.

This makes the climax of the film so much more difficult to track: Convinced that Dr. Rydell is out to steal Linda from him, Dave confronts the doctor at a Yankee game, where Dave intends to win Linda back with a marriage proposal. All of this is straight out of Rom-Com 101. But the ending could have been so much more meaningful if any time or effort was invested in Dave’s relationship with Linda. I fully understand that audiences are much more likely to go to Anger Management because they want to see Sandler throwing an oversized fit, but the ending shouldn’t hinge on our investment in his love life.

That Anger Management wastes the talents of a bona fide star like Tomei is one of its biggest sins, but the film just ends up being one of the more forgettable entries in this series so far. There is a version of this story that could have been successful, where Sandler embraces his dark side. Instead, by trying to appeal to a wider, more family-friendly audience, Sandler is trying to have his cake and eat it too.

I’m just thankful I didn’t get any cake thrown in my face.

  • “I’m Getting Paid How Much?!” Inexplicable Cameo Award: Yes, that really was Woody Harrelson as a transexual prostitute/security guard. And yes, that really was Mad Men’s January Jones as a bisexual porn star.
  • Just Go With It: The Happy Madison Promise. The scene in which Sandler confronts his childhood bully (played by John C. Reilly), who has grown up to be a devout Buddhist monk, has Sandler’s fingerprints all over it.
  • Fart Joke Counter: Just one, from Nicholson, no less! Take that out, and it’s a perfect movie!
  • The Walkout Test: Again, this movie’s willingness to play it safe makes it a fairly easy pass.
  • It’s downright criminal that this film features a group therapy scene with Nicholson and there are no references whatsoever to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
  • Anger Management was eventually spun into a TV series under the same name starring Charlie Sheen — and also written largely by David Dorfman — which lasted for 100 episodes. Do with that what you will.

NEXT TIME: David Spade is a celebrity man-child in Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star.