My Year with Adam: Anger Management
My Year with Adam is a series of essays that I will post throughout this year. The essays will be deep dives into a film starring Adam Sandler. They will not be traditional reviews, but an exploration of theme and what is conveyed by the central message of the film. Or, really, whatever about the film strikes me the most while watching it. As these are deep dives, no aspect, plot point or quote from the film is off limits, so if you haven't seen the film before and are sensitive to a viewing experience in which you know nothing, then watch the film and come back to the essay. The essays will appear in February, May, August, and November.
Anger Management, directed by Peter Segal and written by David Dorfman, is about Dave Buznik, played by Adam Sandler, who by a series of mishaps is sentenced to anger management therapy. His therapist, Dr. Buddy Rydell, played by Jack Nicholson, employs several unorthodox methods to get Dave to let go of his anger to become a more confident person. That's what the film is about on the surface, a silly comedy in which a guy is tricked into therapy by his girlfriend like a very low stakes version of The Game (Fincher, 1997). Yet, on closer reading, the film is about the fragility of masculinity and how that fragility, anger, and fear has perpetuated a society of men who feel they've gotten a bum deal not because they haven't worked hard, but because society is against them.
This idea has wormed its way into our psyche and has spit out those people that seek a return to a glorified past in which men were men. Take Dave and his past trauma as an example. Dave was never able to stand up to his bully. He let an incident in which his penis is exposed define his life and make him into a sycophantic nobody. He's constantly worried about his penis size in relation to other men as if this fleshy hose that sprays urine and semen doesn't work the exact same way as all other healthy fleshy hoses. It doesn't help that his girlfriend's best friend Andrew, played by Allen Covert, is proud of his fleshy hose because it's longer and thicker and shows through his pants. It also doesn't help that when Dave asks porn actresses Stacy and Gina, played by Krista Allen and January Jones respectively, that Stacy states she prefers penises, "when they're really big" and Gina prefers penises, "when they're enormous." It most definitely doesn't help when the transvestite* prostitute, Galaxia, played by Woody Harrelson, Dr. Rydell hires shows off his large penis to Dave. Dave views his perfectly adequate penis as less than because other men tell him it is and because other men assume women want a large penis to satisfy them. Yet, Dave ignores the one person, his girlfriend Linda, played by Marisa Tomei, whose opinion on the subject is the only one that actually matters.
In fact, the form of toxic masculinity presented throughout Anger Management considers women only as servants or sex objects. The most egregious and nauseating example is Gina and Stacy, the nebulously queer porn actresses from Dave's anger management group. They're so over sexualized that when the words "assaulted" and "beat up" are used to describe the incident that landed Dave in the group, Stacy moans with pleasure and Gina says, "Bet you beat her good." Further into the meeting, Gina and Stacy are asked to share. Buddy, the purported caring therapist even remarks, "I'm sure [Dave would] love to hear what you guys have to say..." Here he pauses to wiggle his eyebrows and sneer at the other men, then continues, "We always do." The women, after their story then make out to moans from the men and comments egging them on. These two people are not people, they're objects. Their sexuality only exists to arouse men and not as a legitimate part of who they are. This is in contrast to how Linda is treated. She has no real personality traits and only exists to prop up Dave. She comes into scenes to be Dave's champion only for Dave to not rise to where she perceives him, then cut himself down so that Linda will serve him by building him back up again. She is only there to wait on his ego hand and foot, keeping it healthy, shiny and overgrown. He has to have this because he's terrified his masculinity will be stripped from him by the "alpha" males in his life, or worst of all, that they'll think he's gay.
Yes, it's crazy to think that this much LGBTQ+ representation in a mainstream, studio comedy could be a bad thing, but not all representation is good representation and especially as it serves to otherize queer people and bodies in service of the masculine ideal. Gina and Stacy are one thing, but Lou, played by Luis Guzman, is something else entirely. He wears the most flamboyant, ill-fitting clothes imaginable, lisps, minces, and flicks his limp wrist all over the scenes he's in. It's the most disgusting of stereotypical roles and it serves to create the idea in the toxically masculine that queer men are weak, hideous creatures to be laughed at rather than thought of as human. Though, as if in an attempt to appease some higher power, somewhere, a throw away character, Dave's lawyer Sam, played by Kevin Nealon, is also gay. How do we know he's gay? Dave tells us of course, to try and prove he's not homophobic, "My lawyer is gay, his boyfriend is gay." Then there are two scenes, which have nothing at all to do with Sam himself, but "prove" his sexuality. On a phone call with Dave, Sam stares longingly at a picture of a muscular man. Obviously gay. On a separate phone call with Dave, Sam's, getting a massage from a man. Totally gay. No question. In a film which totally ostracizes or fetishizes sexuality, it has a whole different set of issues when it comes to gender and femininity in men.
The ultimate enemy of masculinity is femininity. These aren't the two forces within every human, they're opposites and against one another. The messaging of Anger Management shows us these tenets in every scene in which men and women interact. Women are weak and less than men in every way. It's an insult to be called a woman or a girl. In order to belittle Dave's boss, Buddy calls Frank Fran and remarks its usually a girl's name. Much stranger, though is the scene in which Buddy hires Galaxia to attract Dave. Galaxia is what a straight man perceives all men who embrace femininity to be. They expect these men to be, sex crazed and submissive to "real" men. It could be that the writer and director think it's funny to have a man in drag, aggressively pursuing an unwilling participant. It may be the filmmakers are conjuring the underlying theme that some men are even too weak for men who choose to dress and "act" like women, who are weak and ineffectual beings. The film makes it clear that this toxic masculinity is the pinnacle of human evolution and that strength is what makes America great. Through references and overt advertisements, the film shows the men watching that to be truly great one must serve his country faithfully and fully.
Anger Management likely filmed only a few months after the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks. It was still fresh in people's minds. Several characters use the phrase, "It's a tough time for our country, right now," to try and get Dave to behave in what they perceive to be a more patriotic manner. Patriotism is a high tenet of the masculine ideal. A person cannot call themselves a man if they're not also a patriot. Dave's building is even topped by a large billboard advertising army recruitment, a shot returned to at least three times. It's likely no accident those billboards were in shots as just about a month before the film was released U.S. coalition forces expanded the War on Terror by invading Iraq and soldiers were needed. Is the film propaganda for the war effort? No, but the ideals of masculinity involve strength and combat as high and lofty concepts. It fits within the narrative to have these advertisements as well as a character wearing a shirt with the logo for the United States Marine Corps and another referencing his military service. Patriots laud and applaud heroes that give themselves in service. In this vein it makes sense how then Mayor of New York Rudy Giuliani is given so much reverence. He's able to calm the entire crowd at Yankee Stadium, then he rallies them again with Dave himself shouting, "You're the man, Mayor Giuliani." It's strange that 17 years after the film's release we see Giuliani as the patsy of his own strongman, but then, in that time, he was "America's Mayor," the ideal leader we looked to. Yet, that is the benefit of time, it allows for change whether good or bad.
Things have changed in the 17 years since Anger Management first premiered. Though the inklings of ideas it plays with are more prevalent now in online troll culture. The alt-right and internet troll culture perpetuate, entrench, and attempt to make real the subconscious misogyny and toxic masculinity presented in Anger Management. The film didn't corrupt these minds, but it doesn't help to be an example people today can point to to ask how society can get back to that view of itself. Though, if the trolls watch carefully enough, they will see the flaw inherent in toxic masculinity. When the men in charge create a power structure that favors the ideals of subservience and ostracism they will fight amongst themselves, pulling each other apart and wearing each other down in a constant cycle of revolution and toppling of leadership as happens in Anger Management's climax when Dave takes what he wants from work. What people can take away from Anger Management is that masculinity is not a means to an end. It can evolve into a strength that doesn't require stepping on the heads of anyone else. With inclusion, equality, consent, acceptance, and debate, humans can stop worrying about what's in their pants or who uses what restroom or how big their dicks are and start tackling how to continue to sustain and grow a society for everyone.
*Since the film never expands beyond the blanket "gay" for all queer characters, I had to suss the scene with Galaxia for myself. I found the best identifier I could based on the context clues of the film, but we as viewers will never know how Galaxia identifies themselves because they are only in the story as a joke and not a whole human being.