Film — The Upside of Anger (R)

The Upside of Anger (R)

By Amy Diaz

Joan Allen uses her actual acting abilities to fight against the artistic laziness and masturbatory instincts of writer/director Mike Binder in The Upside of Anger.

Let me say going in that there is a lot of good acting in this movie — and not just from Allen, who plays a boozy, sad woman whose husband appears to have run off on her and their four daughters. Kevin Costner does a good job as a boozy, sad former baseball player who now trades on his name by working talk radio and selling signed memorabilia. The actresses who play Allen’s daughters — all working on different levels of rebellion against, disgust for and pity for their mother — also do a good job at giving us recognizable young adults in their teens and early-to-mid 20s. Heck, even my least-favorite-writer/director/actor combination Mike Binder does a good job with his role as Shep, Costner’s longtime friend and a rather remarkable pig of a man.

But the movie itself does very little to help along these decent performances. Small moments do not get threaded together into bigger themes — they stay small, allowing the natural whininess of Binder to bleed through. I must explain my Binder hatred: I watched several episodes of The Mind of the Married Man on HBO. I hated the show dearly for its painful unfunniness, its incessant whininess and its complete inability to let characters grow in any believable way. It would be as if, instead of watching a tadpole develop into a frog, some Binder-y mutation forced the tadpole to develop into a kitten. A furless, leaping, amphibious kitten.

So The Upside of Anger seems equally determined to have characters develop or not develop in unusual and unnecessary ways. Terry (Allen) is the late-40s-something mother of four girls who suddenly finds herself alone and with nothing to do but drink in the giant suburban house she had shared with her husband. He, it seems, has gone off to Sweden with his secretary. Terry is full of rage and hurt, much of which she directs at the girls via snippiness at their own lives. Oldest daughter Hadley (Alicia Witt) is nearing the end of college and about to embark on some family building of her own. Second daughter Andy (Erika Christensen) wants to forgo college and decides instead to take a job working for, and eventually start a relationship with, the sleazy radio producer Shep. She meets him as part of a campaign by family neighbor Denny (Costner) to endear himself to Terry. Denny seems to live in the same fog of mourning that Terry is in, though while Terry’s gloom is from a failed marriage Denny’s is from a faded career — the dregs of which he lives off now. He finds some company in Terry’s misery and some genuine joy in her daughters, even the quiet, pained third daughter Emily (Keri Russell) and especially in the peppy daughter Popeye (Evan Rachel Wood). He likes the family environment that, even with its constant drama, brings Denny out of his own sadness.

The movie meanders through the assorted sufferings of its characters in a way that both grabs at meaning but also wants to keep its characters messy and unlikable for as long as possible. I have no problem with the idea of giving us realistic and unlikable leads — Allen is at her best when she lets Terry become a completely unglued wreck. But the movie also seems to want them to find an arc — a clumsy narration at the end of the movie talks about the gift that comes with extreme anger, the person you get to be on the other side. Nifty, but there is no arc. Terry is prevented from growing or changing until the very last possible moment when she just changes — poof — from a boozy mom into not one, from a control freak to some less tightly wound.

Pair with this the tendency of Mike Binder to wallow, to soak each moment of despair for its last little bit of doom and embarrassment. It can work, but only in small amounts. Binder quickly overdoses on the wallowing until the characters become so wrapped up in their own navels that they are unable to move forward.

- Amy Diaz

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