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Upside of Anger, The (2005) Print E-mail
Friday, 11 March 2005
There are some movies that so clearly have their act together in the just the first few minutes that you can relax; you know you’re in good hands, and can simply go with the flow of the film. “The Upside of Anger” is such a movie, good enough that I hope it’s remembered toward the end of the year: it deserves a couple of Oscar nominations.

Certainly Joan Allen deserves one (again), and Kevin Costner, too, for Supporting Actor. Both give realistic, funny and thorough performances, convincing, committed but relaxed—even if Allen’s character is anything but relaxed. She spends the entire movie—which covers three years—in a long-lasting, highly variable snit. She has damned good reason to be so furious, although as Emily (Keri Russell), one of her four teen-to-twenty daughters says in her brief narration, her mother is the “nicest, sweetest person that anyone who knew her ever knew, but now she’s angry. If she weren’t my mother, I’d slap her.” Just those few words encapsulate the carefully-controlled tone of the movie: realistic but funny. It’s not a comedy, but then it’s not exactly NOT a comedy.

Allen is Terry Wolfmeyer, closing in on—or just having passed—fifty. Her husband Grey has run off, probably with his Swedish secretary. The family isn’t in financial trouble—writer/director Mike Binder shrewdly keeps that from becoming a distracting issue—but Terry feels betrayed. And she’s angry—not just at her husband, but toward the entire world. She mostly controls her anger, expressing it mostly in snide remarks and clenched teeth. She’s also begun to drink way too much.

Her daughters are at a loss; their mother is constantly angry at them, too, but they’re getting through difficult times pretty well—only without their mother’s help. Eldest daughter Hadley (Alicia Witt) is in her last couple of years at college; much to the girl’s annoyed bewilderment, Terry has concluded that Hadley hates her. But Hadley doesn’t have time to deal with this, and gratefully returns to school.

Youngest daughter Popeye (Evan Rachel Wood, the central character in “Thirteen”) is enrolled in a private school, and interest in Gorden (Dane Christensen), a classmate that rumor has it goes Bungee-jumping with his father. Andy (Erika Christensen) has graduated from high school but does not want to go to college—which, of course, only makes Terry angry. Emily wants to go to a college of the arts to study ballet—which, of course, only makes Terry angry.

Amiable, beer-guzzling neighbor Denny Davies (Kevin Costner), a retired baseball star, strolls by, hoping to make a deal for some vacant land the Wolfmeyer family owns. At first he takes Terry’s clipped response that Grey has run off as a joke. He takes a lot of things as jokes, and Costner has a great, ingratiating chortle. He’s a local D.J. of sorts; his producer, Shep (director Binder), wants him to talk baseball on his show, but Denny is utterly uninterested. He has a profitable sideline in selling autographed balls and bats—his house is full of boxes of both—but actually talking sports would require something like effort, and he’s more interested in relaxation—and drinking—these days.
He and Terry first become drinking buddies. She doesn’t want him to mention this on the radio, but is privately flattered when he does so anyway. Soon, Denny is hanging around for evening meals, casually occupying what had been Grey’s seat. After wrangling back and forth—remember, Terry is ALWAYS angry—he ends up occupying Grey’s side of Terry’s bed, too. Not that this makes her happy, of course, but at least sex has come back into her life.

As for Denny, he’s gradually falling in love with her, but is held at arm’s length by her steaming rage. He’s willing to come way more than halfway, but Terry has essentially forgotten how to deal with someone in any way except angrily. She never loses her sense of humor, however, which keeps the audience from becoming as exasperated with her as everyone she knows is.

Denny becomes fond of the three daughters living at home, and they like him, too. He arranges for Andy to get a job at the radio station, which sends Shep into small paroxysms of randy delight. Terry, though, isn’t exactly pleased when she learns that Andy and Shep have become lovers. Near the end, there’s a great confrontation between Shep and Terry; she slaps him and he explains clearly and realistically why he’s attracted to women half his age—and is NOT attracted to Terry. She doesn’t like what he says, but she does see his point.

The movie flows in a smooth, comfortable pace; it’s hardly plot-heavy, although there’s a development near the end that’s likely to surprise most viewers. The pace slackens off a little about the _ mark—Binder has shown us everything we really need to know, but goes on adding a few more details than necessary. Yet the movie is so warmly entertaining, so funny in a realistic way that most audiences will forgive it just about anything.

Joan Allen is one of the great treasures of the movies—but few really notice her. In terms of types of roles, she’s all over the place, always excellent, always convincing. Remember her in “Pleasantville,” when tears traced color down her black-and-white cheeks? Remember her Oscar-nominated role as Pat Nixon in “Nixon”? She was also nominated for “The Crucible,” and appeared movies as varied as “Peggy Sue Got Married,” “Tucker: The Man and His Dream,” “Searching for Bobby Fisher” and last year’s “The Bourne Supremacy.” She’s always good, always believable, but has yet to establish a “Joan Allen role”—this is to her credit as an actor, but is one of the reasons that the public has not yet embraced her as much as her colleagues have.

Kevin Costner drives people nuts. When he’s good, as in “JFK,” “Field of Dreams,” “Bull Durham” or “A Perfect World,” he’s as good as movie actors get. But he’s repeatedly tackled pompous, self-important roles that are just embarrassing, as in “Wyatt Earp” and “The Postman.” He was miscast in “Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves,” but the audience blamed him, not the production.

He’s done too many dramas, not enough comedies—a real loss because he’s such a good comic actor. Not in the Jim Carrey sense, but in the Jimmy Stewart sense: relaxed but in control, realistic and not buffoonish. He’s terrific here, perfectly content to play second-fiddle to Joan Allen.

The entire cast is good; the four young women seem very much like sisters, with little squabbles, moments of support and encouragement, and a mutual near-enemy in their terminally cranky mother. Keri Russell was “Felicity” on TV; here she makes Emily almost, but not quite, the central character, with her narration opening and closing the film. She even gets the amusing last shot. Erika Christensen survived “Swimfan,” which means she can survive anything. She was Michael Douglas’ drug-addict daughter in “Traffic,” and was excellent. Her brother Dane is also in “The Upside of Anger.”

Mike Binder has gained little notice so far. His “Indian Summer” of a few years ago was a good try, if a little too structured. He’s from Detroit, like his summer-camp-mate Sam Raimi, and “The Upside of Anger” is set in the Detroit that most movies ignore: the middle-class suburbs and the handsome downtown area. Too many of his movies are relatively little seen, including “The Seearch for John Gissing,” “Londinium” and “The Sex Monster.” He’s also a good actor in other people’s movies, including “The Contender” and “Minority Report.”

Hopefully, “The Upside of Anger” will get him more of the recognition he deserves. It’s a warm, funny drama with excellent performances, targeted straight at adults, making no obvious concessions for the teenage market—but because of its honest, affectionate portrayals of teenagers is likely to be attractive in that area, too. This is the kind of movie that you can remember fondly for many years.

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