The Upside of Anger

© 2005 Ray Wong

Stars: Joan Allen, Kevin Costner, Erika Christensen, Evan Rachel Wood, Keri Russell, Alicia Witt, Mike Binder, Tom Harper, Dane Christensen
Director: Mike Binder
Writer: Mike Binder
Distributor: New Line
MPAA Rating: R for language, sexual content, mild violence
Running Time: 118 minutes

Script – 5
Performance – 8
Direction – 6
Cinematography – 8
Music/Sound– 6
Editing – 7
Production – 8

Total – 6.4 out of 10

Joan Allen as an attractive but angry mother? Kevin Costner as an ex-baseball star? Erika Christensen as a defiant daughter? At a glance, THE UPSIDE OF ANGER does sound, smell and feel like a typical family drama (or chick flick, depending on your definition) with some archetypical characters.

Terry Wolfmeyer (Allen) becomes a very angry woman after her husband left her for his young secretary, leaving her with their four daughters, all with their own problems. The eldest, Hadley (Witt), goes off to college to escape her dysfunctional family; second child Andy (Christensen) decides not to attend college but get job instead; Emily (Russell) wants to follow her dream to become a ballerina, despite her mother’s fierce objection; and the youngest, “Popeye” (Wood), struggles to find her identity as the only “child” in the estrogen-heavy family. Unable to cope with her emotional outbursts, Terry hides from her reality by reaching for the bottles.

That’s when next-door neighbor/single guy Denny Davies (Costner) comes to the rescue. Well, sort of. A baseball star-turned-radio celebrity, Denny is a mess himself. Indifferent about his past and aimless about his future, he, too, hides himself by getting drunk and stoned. Denny and Terry soon develop an interdependent, mutually-destructive relationship, trying desperately to find their places and get through with their lives.

Allen (THE BORNE SUPREMACY) is in great form here. Her portrayal of the bitter, angry, irresponsible yet controlling mother is heart-felt. You can’t help but dislike and sympathize with her character at the same time. While there are plenty of emotional outbursts on display here, it is Allen’s more subtle mannerisms and expressions that remind us what a great actress she is. Costner (DRAGONFLY) does well here in one of his more loosy-goosy, laid-back and nuanced performances. He’s at his best when he’s his all-American old-boy self. Allen and Costner also have a nice chemistry on screen.

The supporting cast is strong. Wood (S1M0NE) is particularly sweet and affecting as introspective Popeye, who also serves as the narrator. Christensen (SWIMFAN) is smart, feisty, and not-so-naïve as the independent Andy. Russell (WE WERE SOLDIERS) is the fairytale princess here, masking the fact that she also is also the most underappreciated, conflicted and bitter of the four girls. Witt (TWO WEEKS NOTICE) has a relatively minor role as the eldest and most defiant daughter -- little does she know she also resembles their mother the most. Writer-director Binder (MINORITY REPORT) also acts as Denny’s lecherous, cradle-robbing producer, Shep. Finally, Dane Christensen (Erika’s younger brother) is charismatic as Popeye’s object of affection.

Beside the fine performances, the production value of this film is top of the line. Cinematographer Richard Greatrex (A KNIGHT’S TALE) does a fine job giving us a film with lush and rich colors, lighting and compositions. Detroit has never looked so lovely.

The problems I see with the film are the script and direction. Considering Binder also writes and acts, he simply tries too hard. At 118 minutes, the film feels long. Sometimes we have no idea why the characters do or say certain things. The motivations of these characters are rather murky, and it’s a bad thing for a character-driven story. There are times when you simply don’t believe in the characters. For example, (*spoiler*) I don’t for a second believe in the relationship between Andy and Shep. Or the fact that Terry was a “warm and loving and nice mother” before her husband left her.

The direction is coy as well. For example, when I saw the first scene, I groaned. Oh no, not another funeral in the rain, please. And when that shot came back after the “plot twist,” I groaned again. How manipulative. I don’t like to be manipulated. Then there are the obligatory wedding and hospital scenes. Oh, spare me. These are the moments when I get angry at the writers and director. Binder can do better than that.

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