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Review: The Upside of Anger

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Joan Allen does staid-and-proper so well, she seldom gets the chance to play sexy. In fact, I can’t remember ever finding her particularly sexy in any movie I’ve ever seen her in. I don’t mean that as a knock against Allen; so many of the parts she’s played have called for Frosty Joan or All-Business Joan rather than Sensual Joan. But in Mike Binder’s The Upside of Anger, she gets to fill the screen with a casual sexiness born of intelligence and experience and confidence and passion, and it produces easily one of the most appealing performances of her career.

Allen plays Terry Wolfmeyer, a woman whose husband has just run off with his Swedish secretary as the movie begins, leaving Terry with four daughters (aged 15 to 25), an enormous house and an even bigger empty vastness in her heart. We never learn just what business Terry’s husband was in, but it was lucrative enough that she didn’t need a career of her own; with her husband suddenly gone, her daughters practically grown and no work to throw herself into, she throws herself instead into bottles of alcohol.

Terry finds a comfortable drinking buddy in former baseball star Denny Davies. Costner here gets to slide easily into the only part that ever seems completely comfortable on him: agreeable jock, or in this case, agreeable ex-jock. Costner’s Denny Davies appears to be nothing quite so much as Bull Durham‘s Crash Davis aged fifteen years (Denny even wears a jacket remarkably similar to the one Crash wore thorughout Durham), and that association between the two parts works as a kind of cinematic shorthand into the character. Denny coasts through life on what fame he’d earned as a major-league pitcher, hosting a sports-talk radio show but refusing to talk about baseball.

The romance that slowly develops between Terry and Denny is completely believable in its messiness, its awkwardness, its sputtering stops and starts; their relationship feels far more like a real-life relationship than a movie one. These two people are both lonely, hurt, desperate and missing something inside, and they find connection through their shared misery. And that connection slowly leads them both back toward the light.

The Upside of Anger (2005)
Grade: B
Written and Directed By: Mike Binder
Starring: Joan Allen Kevin Costner Alicia Witt Erika Christensen Keri Russell Evan Rachel Wood

Those parts of the movie that don’t deal directly with Terry and Denny and their relationship suffers in comparison to the strengths of their scenes together. None of the four daughters truly gets much character development; Evan Rachel Wood seems particularly wasted as Popeye, the youngest of the Wolfmeyer women, who seems to have wandered in from the screenplay for American Beauty. All four are lovely, to be sure, but each seems to be more of a symbol of parenting woe for Terry to act against than characters in their own right. There’s an ill-advised illness scare thrown in to no real effect. And that ending–it feels like a cheat, though it’s not, and improbable though it might be, it does effectively change our perceptions of everything we’ve seen and felt up to that point.

From the title “The Upside of Anger,” you might expect the movie to be about the benefits that could come from channeling anger and using it to create positive change in one’s life, and there is indeed some of that present. Writer-director (and co-star) Binder doesn’t lay out every little detail of the story’s causes and effects but rather lets the viewer piece them together, and fitting that puzzle together helps illuminate the title somewhat. We see, for example, the fight between Terry and daughter Emily (the oh-so-exquisite Keri Russell) in which Emily unleashes her anger on Terry for now allowing her to go away to college to study dance, but we don’t see the resolution; the next time we see Emily, however, Terry’s driving to see her at that very college, so we can assume that it’s likely Emily’s outburst convinced Terry to let her go, or at least played a part in doing so.

But the movie’s also about the difficulties some people face in moving forward with their lives, especially when faced with large degrees of loss. Terry can’t seem to bring her life forward after her husband leaves her and can’t accept that her daughters indeed are moving on with theirs without her. Denny has never been able to leave his baseball career behind. To Terry and Denny, the true upside of anger is its ability to smash through the stranglehold of the past and the fear of the future and allow life to progress once again.

Written by Allen

October 2nd, 2005 at 4:43 pm

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