By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated April 18, 2003 at 04:00 AM EDT
Anger Management: Sidney Baldwin

Adam Sandler and Jack Nicholson bite into Anger Management like successful dieters rewarding themselves with a feast of spice-studded, spiral-cut ham. Refreshed and toned after their art-house spa visits — Sandler to ”Punch-Drunk Love,” Nicholson to ”About Schmidt” — the two XXL personalities are in fit, fighting form in a comedy as bracing and furiously right for the moment as it is broad and huggable.

The notion is high-concept gold: Sandler plays Dave Buznik, a Brooklyn-born wimp, a patsy, a schlemiel so mild-mannered he makes other people want to pants him. (His loving girlfriend, Linda, warmly played by Marisa Tomei, wants to kiss him, but Dave is uptight about public lip-locking, the result of a traumatic childhood incident involving both lip-locking and pantsing.) An underappreciated underling at a New York company where he designs knitted clothing for fat cats — literally, for large kitties — he’s on a business trip, wedged next to an insufferably boorish fellow flier, when his old life ends and a new one is forced upon him: Mild-mannered Dave is preposterously accused of assaulting a flight attendant and finds himself inexplicably sentenced (by Lynne Thigpen, compacting every imperious-black-woman-judge act on TV into one perfect glower in her last role) to a court-ordered term of attitude-adjustment therapy.

And the administrator of that treatment turns out to be none other than his braying extrovert of a travel companion, a Dr. Buddy Rydell, who, as inhabited by Jack Nicholson, bears a slight physical resemblance to late-vintage Orson Welles and a heavy character resemblance to Jack Nicholson in full Jokerhood. Buddy is obnoxious, he’s intrusive, he sports a beret, and he moves into Dave’s home, pitching a fit when the eggs his unwilling host cooks aren’t to his liking. Buddy is also stuffed to his bearded chin with psychobabble, nattering about ”TAS — Toxic Anger Syndrome.” ”Sarcasm is anger’s ugly cousin,” the doctor lectures. ”Temper is the one thing you can’t get rid of by losing it,” he says, making the patient understandably want to slug him. Judging from the other wackjobs in Buddy’s therapy group, two of them gleefully vamped by John Turturro and Luis Guzmán, his students are a backsliding lot.

Now, I’d argue that almost all of Sandler’s roles, and Nicholson’s, too, have been studies in the routing of rage. In ”Punch-Drunk Love,” Sandler’s outwardly meek character let off steam by smashing things; in ”About Schmidt,” Nicholson’s character stashed his tightly packed exasperation at life’s disappointments in his Winnebago. But in this comic vortex of venting (from an inspired script by David Dorfman, who understands the fine line between plane-travel apoplexy and hilarity), each star’s comic talents clarify the strengths of the other. No longer safely reprising the self-limiting role of a doofus who won’t grow up, Sandler actually expresses something mature about a man’s need to assert himself. Nicholson, meanwhile, freed by the expansive direction of Peter Segal (”Nutty Professor II”) to do absolutely anything he wants, including sing a trilling chorus of ”I Feel Pretty” from ”West Side Story,” inflates Buddy with enough self-love to do Dr. Phil proud — and he’s clearly having a great, loose time playing off Sandler’s unique emotional wiring.

”Anger Management” is a spirited salvo against the rising tide of inanity — even if, inevitably, it heads for the life lesson at the end of the therapy rainbow. ”This is a very difficult time for our country,” an unhelpful flight attendant frets (puncturing everything gaseous in the sentiment through her rote repetition), and perhaps with just such sensitivity in mind, the story tilts toward the inspirational, getting spongier when it comes to Dave’s romance with Linda. It’s also a weirdly deracinated, soft-core portrait of New York City, incorporating real, complicated, on-location setups (including Yankee Stadium and Central Park) into a plot that makes very little use of NYC’s singular respect for the ranting and pissed-off among us. Anger management, after all, is a treatment surely only West Coast denizens could sit still for, and only after they’d been through stand-up-comedy traffic school.

What Sandler (who also executive-produced) and Dorfman employ best is New York-style absurdity. Dave may be a Brooklyn boy who went to Trenton Community College (his smug romantic rival, played by Sandler’s longtime producing and acting buddy Allen Covert, went to Brown), but he has sophisticated opinions: ”I think Eskimos are smug,” he tells Buddy, which still strikes me as wildly, free-associatively, New Yorkishly funny. And Sandler and company also wrangle a hip list of cameo players, among them Woody Harrelson (as a cross-dresser), Harry Dean Stanton (as a cranky blind man), Kevin Nealon (as an ineffectual defense attorney), John C. Reilly (as a Buddhist monk), John McEnroe (as an angry guy), and Rudy Giuliani (as the mayor of New York City).

Some New York Yankees also make appearances, and the extraordinary sight of Derek Jeter chanting Buddy’s nonsense mantra meant to help the hostile evade ”the lair of the rage rhino” is enough to make anyone forget, momentarily, this very difficult time for our country, and instead laugh like a hyena.