Robin CliffordWhen Terry Wolfmeyer's (Joan Allen, "The Bourne Supremacy") husband disappears, she furiously begins to belt down the booze. Her high school and college age daughters are disturbed by her behavior, timed when each is beginning to spread their own career and relationship wings. Then neighbor Denny (Kevin Costner, "Open Range"), a retired pro-baseball-player-turned-DJ who's fond of the brewskis, becomes mom's drinking buddy, and her four daughters don't know what to make of things. Yet over time, Denny's presence helps to heal wounds and the Wolfmeyer women experience "The Upside of Anger."
Writer/director Mike Binder (HBO's "The Mind of the Married Man"), who also costars as Denny's womanizing producer Shep, deftly blends comedy and drama until the writer's urge to add a heavy dose of irony at film's end makes it veer off course, undermining the likability of his lead character. Joan Allen and Kevin Costner sound like an odd coupling on paper, but Costner's relaxed playfulness adds just the right amount of warmth to take the edge off of Allen's brittle coolness. They've got chemistry to spare.
Terry is putting her four daughters through a tug-of-war, her anger saying they should hate their dad for running off to Sweden with his secretary while her rational self believes they should maintain a relationship with him. Her daughters, initially understanding of her drinking, are beginning to feel it is getting out of hand. Terry's eldest, Hadley (Alicia Witt, "Two Weeks Notice"), tries to maintain outward decorum while making wry potshots with her sisters. Emily (Keri Russell, TV's "Felicity"), a possible anorexic, is more outwardly combative with mom, especially since she is not being supported in her dream of studying dance at an arts college. Andy (Erika Christensen, "Traffic") is more of the face-rubbing type, accepting a job as a production assistant with Denny's producer over college attendance, then blatantly beginning an affair with the middle-aged lothario. Popeye (Evan Rachel Wood, "The Missing," "Thirteen"), the youngest, is the most supportive and also the most cocooned, in the throes of first love for Gordon (Dane Christensen, Erika's brother), who, it turns out, is gay.
Denny just insinuates himself into the all-female household, having long had a secret crush on his buddy Gray's wife. He's the ultimate proverbial shoulder and Terry's new dependence on alcohol puts them on equal footing. But Denny's also an outside observer to the mother-daughter strains and, in his genuine concern for Terry, is able to work some of the wrinkles out in his own inimitable way. Terry's refusal to acknowledge the relationship as anything but convenient gives Costner his climatic moment (Denny bellowing 'I'm tired of being your bitch!' is one of the film's high points). Things are righted by the day of Hadley's wedding (her engagement luncheon having been the worst of Terry's disastrous drinking displays), which is where this film should have wrapped.
"The Upside of Anger" is always watchable, though, in large part due to its stars. Allen gets to mood swing from slurry rage to sharpened self examination, playing both drama and comedy with ease. She gets the film's biggest belly laugh when she gives an 'if looks could kill' gaze at Shep across the dinner table that literally makes his head explode, an unexpected bit of fantasy that works well. Costner's comfortably uncomfortable in female territory and gives his amusing courtship of Terry an underlying melancholy with his personal sense of failure. The four young actresses, who never convince as siblings, all have their moments with Christensen's malicious manipulation and Wood's sweetness making the strongest impressions. Tom Harper ("What a Girl Wants"), as Hadley's fiance David, gets off one zinger of a line reading with a sotto voce comment on Andy's behavioral motivation.
Binder directs all this chaos with a deft hand, easily transitioning scenes from drama to comedy and back again. He also delivers a first rate production with designer Chris Roope's subtly thematic green and yellow color scheme and Richard Greatex's ("Shakespeare in Love") lovely lensing. Costume designer Deborah Scott ("Titanic") creates a unique identity for each daughter without making them seem like they shop in different countries and aids Allen's arc from sloshed to sober with the lines of her clothing. Alexandre Desplat ("Birth," "Girl with a Pearl Earring"), however, delivers one of his least memorable scores.
"The Upside of Anger" plays a little loose with some of its character motivation, but for the most part it's honest, it's got heart and it's a great return for Costner as sex symbol.
A funeral procession makes its way, on a rainy day, to a cemetery. A voice over tells us that the focal character, Terry Wolfmeyer (Joan Allen), is a bitter and angry woman ever since her husband of 20 year left without a word, abandoning Terry and her four young adult daughters to their fate in “The Upside of Anger.”
Writer-director-costar Mike Binder assembles a talented collection of actors, veteran and up-and-comers, in his comedy/drama about abandonment and, especially, anger. Terry had, she thought, a fine life with her four girls approaching the day when they can leave the nest. But, when her husband does not come home one night – just three days after his young, beautiful, female Swedish assistant quit to return to her native land – she suspects the worst. Beside herself over the betrayal, Terry shuts off all his accounts to teach the cad a lesson. And, she starts drinking morning, noon and night, much to the chagrin of her daughters, Hadley (Alicia Witt), Andy (Erika Christensen), Emily (Keri Russell) and Lavender, AKA Popeye (Rachel Evan Wood).
Soon, their neighbor and Terry’s husband’s friend, Denny Davies (Kevin Costner), a retired pro baseball player and World Series winner, begins to nose around the Wolfmeyer abode. He has been trying to broker a real estate deal but has, up to now, not been able to get hubby Wolfmeyer’s cooperation. Now, he finds that the opposition is gone and Terry has all the makings of a drinking buddy for Denny. After their first round of drowning their sorrows together, Denny, who hosts a radio talk show not about baseball, announces that he is going to declare, on the air, that Terry is his latest, favorite drinking bud. A relationship of friendship, coupled with unrequited desire, develops between these two lonely, needy people.
Meanwhile, the four daughters move on with life as Hadley continues her college education; Andy eschews college and jumps at Denny’s offer to be a production assistant at the radio station – where his producer, Shep (Mike Binder), immediately becomes smitten by the pretty, sexy young woman; Emily aspires to be a professional dancer despite her mother’s misgivings; and, Popeye is in the beginning stages of sexual awareness, except that her “boyfriend” turns out to be gay.
Writer Binder tries to give shrift to all of these story lines and characters and has bitten off more than I think he can safely chew. The meat of “The Upside of Anger” lay in Terry’s story, her confusion and overwhelming anger over being so unceremoniously abandoned. Joan Allen is a superior actress and takes it to the edge here. Terry makes no bones about her excessive drinking, even challenging her daughters to make an issue of her drowning her sorrows. She catches Andy in bed with Shep, one day, and when they all sit down to dinner, her withering stare makes the usurper’s head explode – at least in Terry’s fantasy mind.
Denny’s arrival on the scene is awkward, at first, but a genuine liking takes hold between him and Terry and an odd sort of mating ritual begins. Kevin Costner really helps to anchor “The Upside of Anger” and makes his part of the equation a pleasant addition. Sure, he’s a slob who is always trying to make a buck off of his former fame and comes across a seedy, sad sack. But, he proves to be a lovable slob who holds great affection for Terry and her girls.
I can appreciate Mike Binder’s desire to take advantage of his pretty and talented younger stars but there is simply not enough time to give each their due and still maintain the core story between Terry and Denny. As such, character development is given lip service, with Hadley finishing college and announcing that she is pregnant and getting married; Andy becomes a talented radio producer; Emily strives for her own greatness only to be sidelined by some undefined illness; and Popeye just wants to get her first kiss. The multiplicity of subplots is a real distraction from Allen’s potent performance and, unfortunately, takes much of the wind out of the film’s sails.
Binder’s direction is routine and he seems to dote too much on his own minor character of Shep. Less Shep, less girls and more of Terry, and Terry and Denny, would have helped things considerably. Production details are also by the book and without any real note. The whole air of “The Upside of Anger” feels like it could have used some judicious re-writes to streamline the story to fit the under-120 minute run time. The film, to cover all the story threads, could have easily added 30 minutes, or more, to its run – but that definitely would not have been a good thing with Binder at the helm. I give it a C+.
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