Monday, August 01, 2005

The Upside of Anger / ***½ (R)

Terry Wolfmeyer: Joan Allen
Denny Davies: Kevin Costner
Andy: Erika Christensen
Popeye: Evan Rachel Wood
Emily: Keri Russell
Hadley: Alicia Witt
Shep: Mike Binder

New Line Cinema presents a film directed and written by Mike Binder. Running time 118 min. Rated R (for language, sexual situations, brief comic violence and some drug use).

I’ve been on a bit of a kick of late appreciating actors who have been held in less than high regard for their acting abilities. Certainly at the level to which marquee stars rise in their success they must have more than just luck behind them, even in those cases where those stars seem a bit monotonous in their performances. At about the time My Own Private Idaho made its Criterion Collection debut this spring I was watching a lot of Keanu Reeves films. His ability was arguable during his early efforts, but the kid made some incredible artistic choices in material and eventually came into his own as an actor. A few weeks ago I was surprised to find myself taking in all the William Shatner performances I could find, an underrated performer if ever there was one. I was very happy to see he snagged himself an Emmy nod for his work on Boston Legal. The new video release The Upside of Anger may just spur on my next underappreciated performer obsession with its wonderfully light and seemingly out of somber character performance by Kevin Costner.

While Costner’s performance is worth the rental price, The Upside of Anger is really Joan Allen’s movie. Allen (The Contender) plays Terry Wolfmeyer, a mother of four daughters whose husband has left them for a European rendezvous with his twenty-something Swedish secretary. Her story is told mostly through the eyes of her youngest daughter, nicknamed Popeye (Evan Rachel Wood, Thirteen), who fears her mother has lived her life through bitterness and anger since her father’s indiscretion. This observation is true, although her mother has a lot of help from alcohol.

Terry is a controlling woman, whose life has unraveled out of her control. It doesn’t help that this upheaval happens when her daughters have reached that age where they begin to take control of their own lives. Her oldest, Hadley (Alicia Witt, Mr. Holland’s Opus), is graduating from college with some surprises for her mom. Emily (Keri Russell, TV’s Felicity) wants to pursue an artistic career in dance, but seems to suffer from an eating disorder. And Andy (Erika Christensen, The Perfect Score) has decided against higher education all together in order to get a jump-start on her broadcasting career, taking a job at a local radio station as a PA for a womanizing producer who quickly mixes work and pleasure.

Amongst this whirlwind of female chaos Terry finds her somewhat floating along neighbor Denny Davies (Costner, Open Range), an aged (not aging) ex-ballplayer who is high half the time, drunk all the time, and has a whimsical approach to life that has appeal and relief to it. Denny saunters his way into the family, setting a series of events in motion that both add to and act as release from Terry’s slipping grasp on her life as she knows it.

The film, like its characters, segues back and forth between great comedy and great drama. Even in the tragic moments of Terry’s life there is comedy and even the levity is laced with poignancy. It is the idea of a relationship with Denny that causes the greatest distress at first. Denny is obviously glad to hear about the departure of Terry’s husband, and quickly tries to fill the physical and emotional void left in Terry. Denny, with his carefree existence as a radio jock, seems at first to be a minor league prize for a major league lady; but his charm is undeniable and soon Terry finds herself offering a roll in the sack to a startled Denny.

There are wonderful relationships explored between mother and daughters here, but the courtship between the film’s two stars is so endearing and odd and funny and real, it steals the whole show. Costner’s turn here reminds me of the wacky brother gunslinger he portrayed early in his career in the western Silverado. This character is a far cry from that one; but he is so free to be silly and just a little off kilter here, I smiled every time he came on the screen. Allen, on the other hand, embraces the severity of her character, utilizing some stern looks that have served her well in previous roles, but the character is put through such conflict emotionally that her severity works both ways, providing the wrenching drama from the actress we have come to expect and also providing stark contrasts with the way she wants to control a situation and how it comes out that her stern nature often becomes a tool of comedy.

Writer/director Mike Binder (HBO’s Mind of the Married Man) shows a natural affinity for presenting the calamity of real life. He puts just the right amount of absurdity into the lives of these characters to sell them off as the genuine articles. He casts himself as Denny’s producer and Andy’s boss/boyfriend Shep, and builds a great deal of comedic and cathartic material out of this essentially sideline player. Much of Terry’s titular anger is directed at Shep during his relationship with her daughter. Her imagining Shep’s head exploding at the dinner table one evening provides one of the film’s biggest laughs, while it is also Shep that shovels a load of hard to take truths at Terry when he can finally stand no more of her.

There are developments that should be left for the viewer to discover, but The Upside of Anger really looks at those happenings of life that people are always going through, yet can never imagine having to go through. Its absurdity and seriousness are important in their relationship to each other. Terry and Denny play important roles in each other’s lives that mirror that relationship of these seeming opposites. It is one of those films that is a pleasure to know someone had to realize it in order to conceive of it. Binder promises with this film to be a director and writer of keen insight into the human soul and condition.

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