Joan Allen as Terry Wolfmeyer
Kevin Costner as Denny Davies
Erika Christensen as Andy Wolfmeyer
Evan Rachel Wood as Lavender “Popeye” Wolfmeyer
Keri Russell as Emily Wolfmeyer
Alicia Witt as Hadley Wolfmeyer
Mike Binder as Adam “Shep” Goodman
Tom Harper as David Junior
Dane Christensen as Gorden Reiner
Danny Webb as Grey Wolfmeyer
Magdalena Manville as Darlene
Suzanne Bertish as Gina
David Firth as David Senior
Rod Woodruff as Dean Reiner
Stephen Greif as Emily’s Doctor
Arthur Penhallow as DJ Arthur P
Yet another film that tries too hard to mix comedy and drama, The Upside of Anger has a few great moments, mostly thanks to Joan Allen, but they’re wedged into a fairly bland film.
Terry Wolfmeyer (Joan Allen) is close to a breakdown after her husband leaves her, but Denny Davies (Kevin Costner) an alcoholic ex-ballplayer, tries to help her through this rough period, even though he obviously wants to take her husband’s place. Meanwhile, Terry’s four daughters resent the fact that their father has been driven away by their overbearing mother and they each find their own way to rebel against her.
The success of American Beauty five years ago opened the floodgates for a new genre of dark dramatic comedy, which has allowed filmmakers to avoid their films being labeled by claiming that their films’ eclectic mood represents the variety that makes up real life. The latest filmmaker to jump on the bandwagon is Mike Binder, fresh off his HBO sitcom “Mind of the Married Man”, who assembles a star-studded cast to tell yet another dysfunctional family tale. Like the recent Imaginary Heroes, he fails to find that perfect balance between drama and comedy, but at least The Upside of Anger is a richer story with more interesting characters.
The film is narrated by Terry’s youngest daughter “Popeye,” played by Thirteen’s breakout star Evan Rachel Wood, setting up the story simply by Terry waking up one day and finding her husband gone, which she matter-of-factly tells her daughters over breakfast. Her husband’s best friend Denny doesn’t give Terry very much time or space to get over it, immediately trying to fill the vacancy. This leads to a “will they won’t they” game of wills that is the typical modus operandi for most romantic comedies these days. There isn’t much chemistry between them, either as actors or characters, so Denny’s supposedly charming way of just turning up in Terry’s bathroom while she’s taking a shower just doesn’t do much to warm the viewer up to him.
Fortunately, that romantic storyline is a McGuffin for the real body of the film, which explores the relationships between Terry and her four daughters, each played by a very talented young actress. Evan Rachel Wood’s “Popeye” immediately gravitates to Denny and hopes he’ll hook up with her mother, because he seems to assuage her normally bitter nature. The other three sisters are a bit warier of Denny’s plays for their mother, and their resentment is shown off in different ways. Emily, played by “Felicity” star Keri Russell, is the angriest about their father leaving, feeling that her mother is responsible, and it doesn’t help that her mother doesn’t take her desires to be a professional ballerina seriously. The eldest daughter Hadley has already left for college and waits until she’s engaged before she tells her mother that she is pregnant by her boyfriend of three years. The contrast between the two situations comes from the fact that one relationship offers laughs while the one is somewhat tragic.
This film would seem rather dry if not for the amazing casting, beginning with Joan Allen, who gives such a rich and full performance that you’ll wonder how so many have forgotten what a great actress she is. Most of the film she is playing a bitchy and bitter woman, who is not generally likeable, but halfway through the film, she “turns on the nice” just to meet the parents of Hadley’s new fiancé, which leads to the film’s funniest moment. It’s pretty shocking to see Allen switch moods and attitudes as quickly and effortlessly as Annette Bening does in Being Julia, and it’s clear that Allen would have been in the Oscar running if this film came out last November.
By comparison, Costner’s character isn’t nearly as developed or interesting, channeling Bull Durham mixed with a bit of Jeff Bridges when he does his comic schtick. Not a particularly deep character, Denny’s only real fault is that he refuses to talk about baseball on his radio show, much to the consternation of his producer, played by Binder himself. It seems like Binder has taken the far more daring secondary role as a middle-aged lowlife sleezeball who hires Terry’s daughter Andie, played by Erika Christensen, as a production assistant and then gets into a relationship with her. There’s something rather perverse about a 47-year-old filmmaker writing a scene in which he gets to carouse with a gorgeous 23-year-old, but at least this subplot leads to the film’s best moment when Terry finally gets as sick as seeing this duo as we do and confronts Binder with hilarious effect.
Other than that, the film is fairly boring, even if the characters do grow on you eventually, and Binder does a good job making time pass without you really noticing. There is nothing more aggravating than a movie that starts with a funeral because it makes you spend most of the movie wondering who will die and how, but at least, Binder throws in a bit of an unexpected twist towards the end that is somewhat redeeming.
The Bottom Line:
What starts out as a rather dull and obvious romantic comedy is barely saved by the fantastic performance by Allen and some interesting subplots as the story develops. Because of this, some will love the film while others will hate it.
The Upside of Anger opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, March 11, and expands nationwide in early April.