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Dustin Putman

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The Upside of Anger (2005)
2 Stars

Directed by Mike Binder
Cast: Joan Allen, Kevin Costner, Erika Christensen, Evan Rachel Wood, Keri Russell, Alicia Witt, Mike Binder, Tom Harper, Dane Christensen, David Firth, Rod Woodruff
2005 – 118 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for language, sexual situations, brief comic violence, and some drug use).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, March 11, 2005.

Writer-director Mike Binder (1993's "Indian Summer") has noted that he specifically created "The Upside of Anger" as a starring vehicle for Joan Allen (2004's "The Notebook"). A character actress who has been very good in the past, Allen's talents, nonetheless, have not been tapped to their fullest potential. Binder suspected that aside from being dramatically powerful, Allen could also be enormously funny, and in a human way that would avert broad cartonishness. He was right. Joan Allen, in a career-high performance that hits all the right notes and would have been nominated for an Oscar had the film been released at year's end, is the reason to see the "The Upside of Anger," a familial slice-of-life that doesn't always climb above its episodic feel.

The picture begins at a funeral, who it is for left as a mystery that hangs over the proceeding 110 minutes. Switch back in time to three years earlier, Terry Wolfmeyer (Joan Allen) has recently been abandoned by her husband, left to take care of their four daughters on her own. Terry drinks too much, staggering around her house in a fog that masks her absolute anger at the recent cards her life has dealt her. She gets an unwanted, but much needed, drinking buddy in friendly neighborhood drunk Denny Davies (Kevin Costner), an aging former professional baseball player who now hosts his own radio talk show. At first, he comes to her doorstep to discuss developing the empty wooded land on her property, but then sticks around, making friends with the girls and entering into a kind-of relationship with Terry.

Meanwhile, Terry's daughters, three of them teenagers and one a couple years older, make the first steps at taking control of their own lives. Baby of the family and narrator Popeye (Evan Rachel Wood) grows a crush on classmate Gorden (Dane Christensen), her advances in his direction oddly not reciprocated. Emily (Keri Russell) is a ballerina with a possible eating problem who wants to go to an arts school, much to the chagrin of Terry. Andy (Erika Christensen) has no college aspirations, instead nabbing a job at the radio station Denny works for and soon romanced by much-older producer Shep Goodman (Mike Binder). Hadley (Alicia Witt), the oldest and most hostile toward her mother, promptly graduates college, marries, and gets pregnant, not exactly in that order.

"The Upside of Anger" is a dramedy light on plot, heavy on individual events, and leading toward a surprise revelation that is kind of neat from a conceptual viewpoint, but also exposes a number of small flaws in the screenplay. The film, more than anything, lacks clarity in the lives of its characters, making what strives to be profound in the way 1999's "American Beauty" and 2004's "The United States of Leland" were into something less air-tight and assured. First of all, the story surrounding the abandonment of Terry's husband leaves a lot unexplained. Why does she not want to know his whereabouts? How is she able to sit at home for three years without a job, spending $60 on vodka each time she goes to the grocery store, yet still has enough money to keep a nice upper-middle class house and send two of her daughters to college?

Because the movie takes place over three years, there are also time discrepancies concerning the daughters and where they should logically be in their education and/or work. For example, as the film opens, Emily appears to at least be a junior in high school (no age is given). Thirty-six months later in the story, she still doesn't seem to have started college yet. That Emily is played by the otherwise remarkably understated 28-year-old Keri Russell (TV's "Felicity," 2002's "We Were Soldiers"), and is intended to be younger than the character of Andy, played by 22-year-old Erika Christensen (2002's "Swimfan"), adds to the confusion. Likewise, 17-year-old Evan Rachel Wood (2003's "Thirteen"), fine in her own right, has passed the age where she can believably portray a 13-year-old, which she does in the first act of the film. When she is dropped off at the junior high school, this admittedly tiny detail strains a lot of credibility and takes one, if only briefly, out of the world of the characters.

It is the performances themselves, top-notch across the board, that "The Upside of Anger" finds its core truthfulness into matters of the human condition. Leading the pack is Joan Allen, who makes matriarch Terry Wolfmeyer frustrating and lovable, often simultaneously. Terry is a functioning alcoholic—the functioning part sometimes put into question—and Allen makes this important character trait unblinkingly real without going over-the-top. Terry drinks to dull the pain and anger in her heart—Denny does the same thing, which makes for a bonding bridge between the two—but she finally gets to a point where she has nothing left to dull, forcing her to look inward and recognize a clear head might do her some good. Allen's entire performance is superbly drawn, but it is the small moments that really hit home and garner huge laughs, including her incomparable reaction to catching Andy sleeping with her twice-as-old boss, and the culmination of an on-going plot point where she is chastised for constantly driving too fast while a man's kids play by the road.

In starring as retired baseball great Denny Davies, now a lonely man past his prime who is tired of talking about the sport, Kevin Costner (2003's "Open Range") completes an unofficial quadrilogy that also includes 1988's "Bull Durham," 1989's "Field of Dreams," and 1999's "For Love of the Game." Costner's charming, low-key performance would be the one getting all of the attention if not for being outshone by Joan Allen. As womanizing radio producer Shep Goodman, Mike Binder (2002's "Minority Report"), who also writes and directs, does manage to stand out in his scenes. Binder is funny and, ultimately, touching, and a monologue he has at a wedding where he talks about his reasons for preferring May-December romances is not only brilliantly written but also somehow understandably logical. Of the four Wolfmeyer daughters, Keri Russell's Emily is the most involving and vividly developed character, a young woman whose passion for ballet and dance mostly goes unrecognized by everyone else in the family. The rest are uniformly strong, although Alicia Witt (2002's "Two Weeks Notice"), as eldest daughter Hadley, has the least to do in an underwritten role. A few more scenes strengthening the sibling relationship between the four girls would have been largely beneficial to the outcome. As is, their interaction is minimal.

Time and time again, "The Upside of Anger" introduces elements, including an illness and a risky bungee-jumping incident, that one fears may abruptly take the film down a saccharine, melodramatic road. Writer-director Binder is clearly playing with his audience by including them—the narrative begins at a funeral and then turns back the clock, after all—but he fortunately avoids the obvious. In this respect, "The Upside of Anger" is thoughtful and rather shrewd to the way life really is. At the same time, because there are few major happenings in the plot beyond the superficial, the movie has a periodically bland, freestyle feel to it. It is up to the actors, then, to do what they get paid for, and do it masterfully. In most cases, this is just what happens in "The Upside of Anger," a valiantly flawed effort boosted by noteworthy star turns that make the two-hour running time a rewarding filmgoing experience.
© 2008 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman