ANGER MANAGEMENT After delivering subtle, shaded performances in The Pledge and About Schmidt, Jack Nicholson reverts back to his familiar "wild and crazy guy" persona in Anger Management -- and that's actually not a bad thing. Nicholson gamely gets into the swing of the satire as Buddy Rydell, an unorthodox therapist whose methods threaten to completely unnerve his latest patient, a meek businessman (Adam Sandler) railroaded into subjecting himself to the good doctor's anger management program. It's doubtful we'll ever see Sandler tackling Hamlet or Willy Loman, but both last fall's Punch-Drunk Love and now Anger Management demonstrate that he can be an engaging presence when he drags himself away from projects aimed squarely at mentally deficient frat boys. Even if some of the situations seem overly familiar (the Yankee Stadium climax) or needlessly protracted (ditto), the movie zips by on the strength of some big laughs, sharply cast supporting roles (notably John Turturro and an unbilled Heather Graham) and the two well-matched stars at its core.
DADDY DAY CARE There's been a lot of grousing lately about how any time Eddie Murphy appears in a family film, he's wasting the hard-edged skills that initially made him a star in such R-rated hits as 48HRS. and Beverly Hills Cop. I'd be more sympathetic to this argument had Murphy only made good R-rated flicks, but the truth is that he's far easier to take in pictures like Mulan and now Daddy Day Care than in foul-mouthed turkeys like Beverly Hills Cop II, Harlem Nights and Vampire In Brooklyn. In fact, Murphy's charming performance proves to be one of the stronger aspects of this PG-rated piffle about two marketing executives (Murphy and Jeff Garlin) who, after losing their jobs, decide to open their own day care center. The usual unimaginative touches are on view -- several flatulence bits, over-the-top comic foils (played by Anjelica Huston and Kevin Nealon), etc. -- but an acceptable number of decent gags, a sweet turn by Steve Zahn as a Daddy Day Care employee with a Star Trek obsession, and Murphy's strong rapport with his young co-stars (especially Khamani Griffin as his son) make this more enjoyable than any level-headed adult could have reasonably expected. 1/2
DOWN WITH LOVE Trying to replicate those frothy Rock Hudson-Doris Day romantic comedies from the late 50s/early 60s was a clever idea; cross-pollinating it with the Austin Powers movies before letting it reach the screen was a terrible one. Indeed, it's the smarmy, smutty humor that single-handedly threatens to torpedo this kitschy throwback that nevertheless contains enough appealing elements to just barely overcome its fondness for awkward double entendres. Director Peyton Reed (Bring It On) and his crew certainly get the look right, from the Technicolor saturation to the lavish sets to the ab-fab costumes, and scripters Eve Ahlert and Dennis Drake have come up with an acceptable plotline involving a playboy-journalist (Ewan McGregor) and his attempts to tame the author (Renee Zellweger) of a best-selling pre-feminist manifesto. McGregor and Zellweger are likable in their roles, even if they're far more mannered than Hudson and Day ever were. Still, movies of this ilk were often stolen by the supporting players, and that's the case here as well, with Sarah Paulson and especially David Hyde Pierce delightful as the leads' confidantes. Had this steered clear of the juvenile gags that pop up every now and then (the split-screen phone conversation sequence is downright dreadful), it might have been closer to last year's Far From Heaven as both a homage and a deepening of vintage classics; instead, it's merely an adequate comedy with eye-popping visuals. 1/2
IDENTITY As a longtime fan of Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians, this new thriller, which works from the same template, completely had me in its grip for the first hour. Eleven people, including a former cop (John Cusack), an active cop (Ray Liotta), a hooker (Amanda Peet) and a has-been actress (Rebecca DeMornay), all find themselves stranded at a desolate hotel during a massive rain storm, whereupon they start getting murdered one by one. With this cast lending prestige and a competent director (James Mangold of Girl, Interrupted) emphasizing mounting suspense over cheap scares, Identity works like gangbusters until it reveals Major Plot Twist #1 with about 20 minutes to go (Major Plot Twist #2 concerns the killer's identity during the final minutes, but this one's easy to figure out for those familiar with the ground rules of the genre). Without giving too much away, this sudden reversal of circumstances might catch most audiences off guard and certainly takes the film into a new direction, but that's not necessarily a plus, as this shift largely negates everything that preceded it and ends up reducing its initially intriguing characters to nothing more than paper dolls. It's a real shame: Perhaps the Director's Cut on DVD will shuck the entire final third and add a better resolution, but let's not hold our breath.