Film Reviews | May 13, 2006 | Comments ()
I preface my review of The Upside of Anger by mentioning that I awoke at 4 a.m. this morning to take a flight to New York, just so I could see this film two weeks before it’s released in Boston. It’s been a hard winter on movie critics, and I craved the opportunity to sit through a movie for adults, one that neither relies on cheap scares (and even cheaper special effects) nor on silly fish-out-of-water premises with performances by bad action stars trying to cross over and cash in on the family film audience.
I mention this only to put my review in context: The bustle of NYC overwhelmed me. I have a tendency to cower amidst the noise and crowd of the city; and even the early morning screenings here are packed (as opposed to the first screenings in Boston, where the only other person in attendance is usually the same heavy-set woman who rarely bathes, pawing on her industrial-sized tub of popcorn). In a NYC movie theater, I was out of my element, which is probably part of why I liked The Upside of Anger as much as I did; I was too intimidated by my surroundings not to give in to this enormously watchable, sometimes brilliant, psychodrama.
The Upside of Anger is set in late 2001, in the upper-middle class suburbs of Detroit, where strong-willed, responsible suburban wife Terry Wolfmeyer (Joan Allen) has just learned that her husband has left her without so much as a Dear John (Jane?) letter. Devastated more by being left than by losing her husband, Terry’s life takes a sudden downturn: She becomes bitterly indifferent, drinking her way through the misery, chain-smoking away her days in front of CNN, while trying to deal with her four demanding teenage daughters, who are usually at odds with her.
Enter Denny Davies (Kevin Costner), a scruffy and charming retired baseball star, dealing with his own post-spotlight spiral: He hosts a sham sports-talk radio show where he refuses to discuss sports, and sells his own memorabilia to stay afloat. Denny, a next-door neighbor to Terry, invites himself into her life, providing an affably drunk counterpart to Terry’s cold, angry dipsomania, which in turn blossoms into a wonderfully offbeat relationship.
Denny—while trying to deal with Terry’s romantic temper tantrums— also gets himself involved in the melodramas of her four daughters, each of whom are fleshed out as well as any in an ensemble this large. Hadley (Alicia Witt) is the oldest daughter, visiting periodically from college just long enough to give her mother grief; Emily (Keri Russell) plays a ballet dancer with an eating disorder who is finally given the dramatic license to use profanity after being denied that gratification as Felicity every (single fucking) time Ben would cheat on her; and the unfortunately nicknamed Popeye (Even Rachel Wood) is the youngest daughter and the movie’s narrator, who falls in love with a classmate only to learn he is gay. Andy (Erika [Swimfan] Christensen) plays the other daughter, who opts out of college, and instead carries on an affair with Denny’s 40-something talk show producer (Mike Binder, who also wrote and directed the film) after she is hired as his production assistant; that it was possible to follow her subplot says a lot for Christensen’s acting ability, given the camera’s almost perverse obsession with her cleavage.
What makes The Upside of Anger exceptional, however, are the two leads. Allen’s richly layered performance manages to elevate the screenplay even where it is sometimes weak; she transcends the hokey “Desperate Housewives” stereotype, creating a flawed, frustrating character that could’ve come off as unlikable in lesser hands. Instead, Allen makes her alcoholism a positive, using it as a weapon to bludgeon those who might otherwise feel sorry for her. As for Costner, once you get past your preconceived ideas of Costner as washed-up athlete, his character casually charms you, providing the movie’s comedic element, lacing his character—and the rest of the movie—with much-needed humanity to offset the controlled, chilly performance of Allen.
Binder, most famous for his rightfully short-lived HBO series “Mind of the Married Man,” based his script on his own experiences after going through a divorce, which explains why The Upside of Anger so often feels too real—at times his screenplay gets bogged down by the very verisimilitude that makes it so smart, as when the movie’s dialogue takes on the same banal qualities of a married couple’s 47th argument.
What really works for Binder, however, is the opening sequence, set in the present day at a funeral, letting us know from the outset that the movie will end in someone’s death, infusing the entire film with a soft tension of wonder. It works because it tricks the audience into believing that we are being manipulated, led ultimately into weepy Meryl Streep territory. When the twist finally arrives—and when it’s not what you think it will be—that tension suddenly dissipates, and, in a retroactive sense, the emotional impact of the last two hours springs into place, touching you without even giving in to sentimentality.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba and lord over a small online publishing fiefdom. He lives in Ithaca, New York.