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License to Vent 

We all feel this way sometimes. We catch a run of bad luck when nothing seems to go right. Our problems defy our best efforts to resolve them. And then something truly horrendous happens. A loved one dies suddenly. We lose our jobs. A spouse proves unfaithful. All at once, it seems as if even God has abandoned us. And we surrender to the ugly temptation to tell the world to go to hell. Such is the premise of writer-director Mike Binder's The Upside of Anger, which looks at the soured life of a prosperous suburban family and provides head-starts in next year's Oscar race for stars Joan Allen and Kevin Costner.

The Upside of Anger is foremost the story of Terry Wolfmeyer (Allen), a middle-aged mother of four daughters. Terry's oldest daughter, Hadley (Alicia Witt), is a senior in college who hasn't told her mother about the special young man in her life. Second daughter Emily (Keri Russell) attends an arts institute with hopes of becoming a professional dancer. Terry doesn't think much of this plan and wishes Emily would devote herself to a more practical education. Third daughter Andy (Erika Christensen) has just graduated from high school. She wants to be a broadcast journalist and wants to begin working in the field immediately without attending college at all. Mom is outraged at this notion. Youngest daughter Lavender, known to her family for reasons never revealed as Popeye (Evan Rachel Wood), is a 15-year-old with a crush on a new boy in her school named Gorden Reiner (Dane Christensen), who claims to be gay. Popeye is willing to have sex with Gorden to prove that he isn't.

In short, the Wolfmeyers are a fairly typical family, far more complicated viewed up close than they appear from a distance. Then Dad Grey Wolfmeyer (Danny Webb) disappears, and it doesn't take Terry long to determine that he's run off without a word with his Swedish secretary. Terry has no doubt had an edge to her all along, but the raging self-pity spawned by her abandonment blows through her personality like a volcanic eruption, and everybody around her is burned by the lava and buried in the ash.

One person, however, is attracted to Terry's heat, and that's a neighbor named Denny Davies (Costner), a former Major League pitcher for the Detroit Tigers. Denny earns his living autographing baseballs and hosting a local radio talk show. He and Grey once consulted about working together on a land development deal, and Grey always thought Denny had a "thing" for Terry. He was right. And with a champion athlete's instinct for capitalizing on winning opportunities, Denny starts hitting on Terry before she's even managed to throw all Grey's clothes in the trash. Thereafter, the movie tracks forward on two intersecting narrative fronts. Terry's troubled relations with her daughters is mostly drama while her unconventional romance with Denny is mostly played as comedy.

Though there is much to admire here, I think other critics have praised this film a tad extravagantly -- the product, perhaps, of a depressingly long dry spell of mainstream releases that stretches all the way back to Christmas. Binder doesn't handle movement in time well. He tries to provide clues with exterior shots of changing seasons, but leaving the theater, few viewers will be certain whether the film takes place over several months or several years. Andy's romance with Denny's producer, Shep Goodman (filmmaker Binder), isn't convincing for a fleeting second. And I don't know whether we should grant Binder credit for playing such a dislikable schlemiel or be appalled by the audacity of his suggesting that a girl as young and beautiful as Erika Christensen would be interested in a Binder-aged man who looks like he needs to be power washed. And while speaking of grooming issues, I wish that someone had figured out that Yasser Arafat was the only man in history who could look as if he hadn't shaved in three days on a permanent basis. I like the fact that Costner was willing to play against his handsome movie-star image, but after about 30 minutes I wanted to yell, "Look, you've either got to be clean shaven sometime or you've got to sport a beard." Still, I do recommend this movie. Lots of it is laugh-out-loud funny as Terry's explosive temper repeatedly shocks us into guffaws. More important, it's refreshing for a film to refuse to wrap its characters up in neat little packages. Terry may be legitimately hurting, but she's a nasty piece of work. Denny is rendered in comparably complicated terms. He's basically ashamed to make a living off long-past glories, but he's too lazy to figure out a more responsible and satisfying way to live. Even in conclusion we aren't sure Terry and Denny's initial boozy symbiosis is supposed to be love or only something among damaged people that often goes by that name.

click to enlarge Joan Allen and Kevin Costner explore The Upside of Anger.
  • Joan Allen and Kevin Costner explore The Upside of Anger.
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