April 16, 2005

MOVIES: The Upside of Anger (Mike Binder, 2005)

The Upside of Anger opens at a funeral. Terry Wolfmeyer (Joan Allen) arrives with her neighbor, Denny (Kevin Costner), and one of her four daughters.

Almost immediately, we get a caption: THREE YEARS EARLIER, and we're in the Wolfmeyer home, where Terry's husband, Grey, has just disappeared, apparently run off to Sweden with his secretary.

Terry wallows in pity and booze, and argues a lot with her daughters. She more or less falls into a relationship with Denny, a one-time baseball player who now hosts a radio show on which he refuses to talk about baseball. It's not a particularly romantic affair, built as it is on desperation, lust, and the unspoken belief that constantly drinking with someone is somehow less pathetic than constantly drinking alone.

The most pleasant surprise in the movie is Kevin Costner, who is very good; he's done so much dreck in the last decade that it's wonderful to be reminded how subtle and understated he can be. Costner is perfect here as a likable lug struggling to figure out what life holds now that celebrity and adulation are in the past.

Joan Allen also does fine work here, in a role that's something of a departure from her usual movie work. She's tended to play very controlled women, and it's fascinating to watch her here as someone whose control over her own life and emotions is rapidly vanishing.

What's missing from her performance (and from the script), I think, is any sense of who Terry was before Grey's disappearance. The youngest daughter, Popeye, tells us that Terry used to be a sweet and loving woman, but there's no hint of that in the bitter and malicious woman she's become.

And there are other problems with the movie. Beginning with a flashback from a funeral is always a rather manipulative move; we spend the rest of the movie trying to figure out whose funeral it's going to be, and worrying every time a character coughs or does something remotely dangerous.

Worst of all, when we finally do find out whose funeral it is, the answer betrays everything the movie has told us for the last two hours, and makes Terry's behavior seem even more monstrous and unfeeling.

When a movie ends on such a clumsy note, that can shape the way we remember the whole, and it's sometimes difficult to remember all the good things that came before. Writer/director Mike Binder does such a good job for most of the movie (his acting in a supporting role is significantly less impressive), and the performance by Allen and (especially) Costner are so good, that The Upside of Anger is well worth seeing it, even if you'll leave wanting to kick something.

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