April 4, 2005

The Upside of Anger

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Terry Wolfmeyer (Joan Allen) is mad, really mad. Her husband has just left her and her remaining family seems to have lost the ability to relate to her. In every other “woman and her family recovering from abandonment” movie Terry would get a job or go back to school or do some other empowering thing to lift herself above her degrading husband. However the film, The Upside of Anger doesn’t follow the norm. Instead Tracy spends most of her time drinking vodka and complaining. While it might seem a little harsh, it’s one of the many quirks that make The Upside of Anger a class above its peers.

While in many other films that explore a woman going though a mid-life crisis the protagonist is the victim and nearly perfect, Terry in The Upside of Anger makes mistakes, messes up and is in many points of the film, insensitive and hurtful to other characters. However, Terry isn’t a monster; she’s just acting like a normal person would in the same circumstance. In many points of the film, her angst is appropriate. Her oldest daughter Hadley (Alicia Witt) wants nothing to do with her and eventually marries a real dork. Another daughter Emily (Keri Russell) blames Terry for almost every one of her problems and still another daughter, Andy (Erika Christensen) ends up dating a immature and thoroughly older man played by the film’s director/writer Mike Binder. The only daughter who isn’t really pissing Terry off in the film is her youngest with the lovely name of Popeye, played by Thirteen’s Evan Rachel Wood, who she is having her own troubles with love.

Coming to save Terry’s sanity is her neighbor, Denny (Kevin Costner) in one of his best performances in years. Denny isn’t exactly a great influence, at first he tries to take advantage of Terry’s despair and then evolves into her drinking partner. When Terry finally takes him up on having a “quickie,” Denny actually hides in the bushes.

As the film proceeds over the next (a little too long) almost two hours, we see the ups and downs of the Wolfmeyer women but without veering into campy territory and always accompanied by comedic uplifts. For example, when Andy and her older boyfriend get into a fight in a radio studio, the serious matter is balanced by the fact that a few guys in the adjacent room accidentally hear all their sexual details and can’t stop cracking up.

At the center of the film is the always perfect Joan Allen. Once again Allen delivers as Terry; a difficult task considering the conflicting nature of the character in the film. Even more enjoyable to watch was Costner. For the first time in a long time, Costner’s presence actually sped up the plot and made the film more exciting. In an almost self parodying role Costner plays a retired and rather uninspired baseball player (Costner’s favorite type of casting).

Instead of trying to portray some untainted hero, Costner is simply a regular bonehead who simply enjoys drinking beer but in doing so comes across as the film’s most sympathetic and heroic character. The sometimes irky but lovingly low key relationship that develops between Terry and Denny is reminiscent of the Jack Nicholson – Shirley Maclaine romance in Terms of Endearment.

The Upside of Anger is not without some flaws. For example the film goes on for two years but Terry never seems to seek employment to finance her more than comfortable lifestyle even though she complains about money problems occasionally. Similarly, the audience tends to wonder why Terry’s daughters put up with her so willingly. Terry messes up again and again but her trooper children for some reason seem to shrug it off and continue to cook dinner for her. And of course the film’s plot tends to draw out events that could be easily compressed.

It is still refreshing to watch any film that takes a genre that seems sapped of all life and infuses it by changing a few rules around. Instead of playing out as just another “women’s weepy,” The Upside of Anger pushes the envelope. For example, in one scene Terry imagines Mike Binder’s head exploding rather graphically at the dinner table which is just as disturbing as it is hilarious. Additionally, the twist at the end is certainly worth waiting for.

Don’t worry even though no one in this movie is perfect, just like in real life, each character gives and takes just enough to make it all work out in the end. It seems that the same circumstances work for this film.

Archived article by Mark Rice
Sun Film Editor