I was interested to see what Adam Sandler did to follow-up one of my favorite films of last year – Punch-drunk Love. Director Paul Thomas Anderson perceived a real actor behind Sandler’s usual lowbrow-comedy shenanigans. Together they delivered the most original and exciting romantic comedy since When Harry Met Sally, one that defied formula and became a profound modern parable about romance, grace, rage, and self-control.

That was an impressive step forward for Sandler.

And Sandler’s new movie Anger Management is about as awful as Punch-drunk Love is great. While he shares top billing with Jack Nicholson, and is thus sure to score a huge hit, he has fallen back into a gutter of unimaginative, juvenile humor and preposterous storytelling.

I should have looked beyond the impressive cast list and been worried by the names of the producers—these are the folks responsible for the forgettable Master of Disguise and The Animal. (Remember those? No? Well, there you go.) These filmmakers, including director Peter Segal, aren’t even playing the same game as Paul Thomas Anderson… they’re playing a whole different sport.

Watching Anger Management is like going to the NBA All-Star Game and seeing a fantastic team take the floor, but when the game begins you realize that they’re all stoned.

Segal must have been proud to score such a great cast. And the premise had promise. But that’s about all he can be proud of. The movie tries to mix the buddy-movie feel of Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, the raunch-fest of a Farrelly Brothers movie, and the psychological twists of thrillers like The Game. These things don’t mix.

Here’s the promising premise: Sandler stars as Dave Buznik, the usual shy, insecure, occasionally wrathful Sandler character who this time stumbles into a giant misunderstanding and ends up in court. No, this isn’t The Peter Buck Story. You see, Buznik didn’t really lose his temper. He was a victim of post-9/11 hypersensitivity on the part of passenger airline staff. Thus, he is swiftly appointed to attend anger management courses, and there he provokes the other offenders to rage by demonstrating just how self-controlled he actually is. Soon, his anger management instructor, Buddy Rydell (Nicholson), is moving into his apartment to tyrannize and terrorize his life until his well-repressed anger either goes away entirely or explodes and sends him into solitary confinement.

There’s more. Too much more. The movie piles on characters and tangents that exist only to allow for as many dirty jokes as possible. It’s like they took a bunch of lousy Saturday Night Live skits and constructed a flimsy story that would connect the dots.

Of course, there’s a love story. And there’s a plot about whether Sandler will get the big promotion at the office. Plus, there is a whole lot of time and energy spent discussing the importance of a man’s “size” in his relationship with his girlfriend. To cap things off, it stoops to play on our emotions about the terrorist-damaged New York, giving Mayor Giuliani a most insultingly inappropriate last-act appearance.

Perhaps the most disturbing thing about Anger Management is this: the actors seem to have no idea how bad the movie is. They revel in its badness. Nicholson’s wicked grin still seems to delight many critics, but I got sick of it long before this same old shtick won him another Oscar in As Good As It Gets. In fact, Nicholson has become such a predictable performer that he earned himself an Oscar nomination again this year merely by holding back from his signature eye-flashing and teeth-baring. Here, he basically hams it up, showing he has as much sense of good comedy as Robert DeNiro has shown in recent years.

Folks don’t expect much of Sandler, and, well, this time he meets their low expectations with the same menu of stammering, blinking, and explosive rage that he did in The Waterboy. The two have a couple of good scenes, like the one in which Nicholson forces Sandler to stop in rush hour traffic and sing “I Feel Pretty.” But then they bring the joke back over and over, until we’re sick of it.

The wonderful Marisa Tomei continues to confound the expectations of those who know she’s a great actress, wasting another of her rare big screen appearances on this gooey-eyed and ludicrous character.

In fact, the only pleasure I had watching Anger Management was being constantly surprised by the likable actors who lined up to embarrass themselves. John C. Reilly, Harry Dean Stanton, Luis Guzman, John Turturro… the list goes on. This cast deserves the Coen Brothers, not this stuff.

Thanks to the cast’s enthusiasm, the comedy engine turns over a few times, splutters, sounds like it’s coming to life with something truly inspired… but then it stalls, choking on the fumes of mean-spirited punchlines. We are forced into the unpleasant company of sex-obsessed lesbian porn actresses who exist in this movie only so the frat boys in the audience can hoot in Neanderthal enthusiasm. We are even subjected to a scene in which a Buddhist monk is baited into violence and adolescent insult-hurling. Kevin Nealon plays an attorney who is gay, and any reference to his homosexuality is used to make us laugh at him. Why isn’t somebody blowing the whistle on the movie as throwing fuel on the fire of prejudice?

It says a lot that Heather Graham, once again onscreen only to flaunt her pin-up physique, is one of the highlights of the movie. At least she has the guts to over-play her big scene and achieve some level of outrageous surrealism. (I won’t ever see a plate of brownies without thinking of her face-stuffing temper tantrum.)

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles had the appeal of a good story about being trapped in bad circumstances with unpleasant company. We could relate to it. It struck a balance between engaging comedy and a simple heartwarming story of an odd couple trying to learn to live with each other. It left us with a simple moral: open yourself to the outcast and the unappealing… learn the joys of showing grace and love.

Anger Management has no such virtues. It careens between raunchy humor and a story of “true love” in which characters make alarmingly immature and foolish decisions with frightening frequency. The moral seems to be: Learn to French kiss in public.

And the movie spends so much time worrying about whether “size makes a difference”, you have to wonder if the screenwriters have some kind of insecurity complex. The film makes a pretty clear argument that relationships are really all about sexual satisfaction. It’s all the lovers talk about.

To make a bad movie dull, the whole thing is filmed without a fragment of creativity. I like what the New York Times critic said: “In the list of adjectives that one could append to Mr. Segal, the word slick is not one of them – that capacity seems beyond his means. Some of the movie is so primitively staged that you can almost hear someone leafing through the book of instructions that came with the camera.”

How does such a comedy get made? I blame There’s Something About Mary. When that film became a smash hit, studio execs everywhere realized that they didn’t need to pay screenwriters for good comedy. Large numbers of people will pay good money to hear the same sort of fart and dick jokes they heard in junior high. There’s nothing wrong with a good bawdy joke… but it has to be a good bawdy joke, and no one seems to remember how to tell those. Thus, generations are growing up believing that this is good comedy, while good comedies are hardly promoted at all, shoved aside into the “art house theaters” where only those who listen to movie critics will find them.

If you’re still reading, I assume you’re already one of those people who listens and who cares about decent moviemaking, and you probably know those arthouse theatres pretty well… so what good is this article going to do to stop the masses who don’t listen, don’t care, and have already lined up for opening night, making Anger Management the box office hit of the week?