[Our Sunday Visitor, May 4, 2003]
Gooze-frah-bah. Feel better? That’s a phrase taken from a lullaby that Eskimo mothers use to calm their children. Or so says Dr. Buddy Rydell, anger management therapist and author of “K(no)w Buddy Cares.” In this chewy role Jack Nicholson wears a beret, goatee and an incessant grin, and oozes with know-it-all condescension. If you weren’t angry before you met him, you will be.
Buddy is convinced that Dave Buznik (Adam Sandler) is dangerously angry, though to all appearances he’s a human doormat. Buddy explains to Dave that there are two kinds of angry people: the woman yelling in the grocery checkout line, and the cashier who takes abuse in silence until the day she comes in and mows down the store with bullets. “You’re the cashier,” Buddy tells Dave. “No, I’m the guy in hiding in frozen foods, dialing 911,” Dave protests helplessly.
It’s good to find Sandler in a role that seems natural and believable on him, after the oddity “Punchdrunk Love” last fall. Strangely enough, that film also concerned a person who was stifling explosive anger, but the character in this new mainstream comedy is more believable than the leading role in that arthouse confection. Nicholson likewise is in better form than as the reluctant, dumpy lead of “About Schmidt.” Here he has regained his cheerful edginess, and seems a perfect match to Sandler’s passive-resistant self.
“Anger Management” utilizes a wandering, episodic plotline, which puts Buddy and Dave in a series of impossible situations. While this structure could have been merely tiring it becomes the film’s strong point, because these situations are so deliciously absurd, and they are so satisfyingly cast. Buddy coerces Dave into confronting a childhood nemesis, who turns out to be John C. Reilly in a Buddhist monastery. (Those who are tired of seeing Roman Catholic nuns put to entertainment ridicule may enjoy the turned tables of saffron robes flying.) When Buddy suspects Dave of homophobia, he drives to a shady section of town and pays a transvestite $50 to join Dave in the back seat. This horse-sized character in a long blonde wig is Woody Harrelson, claiming to be a Bavarian nymphet named “Galaxia.”
While “Anger Management” has its broad moments, it is funniest in the details, particularly when it pluckily asserts the improbable. For example, when Buddy tells his anger therapy group about the Eskimo roots of “Gooze-frah-bah,” there is a buzz of delighted, clueless comments like, “Oooh, Eskimos seem nice.” Then one member murmurs, “I think Eskimos are smug.” It’s such a random moment, with no relevance to the plot or anything that comes before or after, but the image of a person who suspects Eskimos of smugness lingers like a little gift.
The script and casting are perfection; the plot is less so and the message, such as it is, is confused. Like many comedies, things are funniest in the first three-quarters, when the situation is plummeting out of control; the windup, when things get serious and heartfelt, is when they also get tedious and sentimental. “Anger Management” does not avoid that common trap.
The ending is also when a movie’s message, if any, appears, and here we get a confused one. Throughout the film Buddy’s psychobabble has been presented as absurd, infuriating, and even dangerous. But wouldn’t-ya-know there turns out to be method in his madness, and he reveals a degree of wisdom. So which is it? Is the realm of Buddy-ism a crock, or do we all needa little Gooze-frah-bah? The film hasn’t really thought this through, and viewers will be happier if they don’t either.
“Levity” is the opposite of gravity; it has nothing to do with humor, so don’t expect laughs in this cinderblock of philosophical reflection. As a teenager, Manual Jordan (yes, the press kit spells it with an “a”; I’m just grateful his last name isn’t “Transmission”) shot and killed a convenience store clerk in a botched holdup; after decades in prison, he is finally being set free. But Jordan believes that he deserves to be punished for what he has done, and broods over his inability to expiate his wrong.
Billy Bob Thornton plays Jordan in a shoulder-length gray wig and a haunted expression—he spooks himself. He tentatively re-enters the busy outside world and, with no other goal at hand, revisits the scene of the crime. From there he intersects with a handful of characters, each with their own issues: the deceased man’s sister and her son, a contradictory “preacher” who lectures to club-going kids; a drugged-out blonde who is a frequenter of the club.
Morgan Freeman plays the preacher who makes liberal use of the f-word, smokes dope, and announces early on that “I’m lying through my teeth.” He chose to affect a raspy growl for this role, but it detracts from credibility. Holly Hunter, who is capable of applying her tightly-wound personality to so many character needs, is here monotonously tense and bitter. Kirsten Dunst is more free in the role of the hard-partying blonde, but she has a facility with snappy comebacks so advanced that it seems unrealistic. It’s as if the writer of the “Bill and Ted” adventures was putting words in her mouth.
Well, he was. The screenwriter and director is Ed Solomon, who also penned “Men in Black” and who has a reliable gift for comedy. In college Solomon volunteered at a maximum security juvenile prison, and met a young man who was beginning a life sentence for murder. On judge’s orders he carried a photo of the person he’d killed, and studied it as if trying to grasp what he had done. That was the germ of this screenplay, and it is clearly a labor oflove. In an interview Solomon mentioned that the cast members worked withoutpay.
But Solomon says, “I was not trying to make a film that had any religious meaning.” The film grapples with the big questions of sin and redemption, but avoids what Solomon calls the “prescribed path” faith would provide in favorof observing someone struggle to do it on his own. But this is like watchingsomeone struggle to get to Dubuque without a map. Instead of building on thewisdom of an ancient community, Solomon’s characters have to start from scratch, and they understandably can’t get very far. “Levity” is earnest andhonest, but short on interior resources, so it fails to advance our insight.=
Video club: The two films this month concern timid men coping with tumultuous life experiences. The quintessential title on this topic is “The Secret Lifeof Walter Mitty” (1947) starring Danny Kaye. Ask: When so many films are about bold, daring men, why do we have a soft spot for guys who timid? Is itimportant that we see these men do something brave in the end? Does this storyline work better as a comedy or a serious drama?