This review could have gone either way. The Upside of Anger has disjointed storytelling, underdeveloped supporting characters, a distracting voice-over and an ill-advised title. It’s tempting to dwell on the film’s gaps in logic and Hollywood’s irritating habit of obsessing over upper-middle-class angst.
But sometimes we have to take the bad with the good. The fact is, The Upside of Anger has so many good moments and such fine performances that it’s easy to forgive the film’s many shortcomings.
Writer-director and Birmingham-native Mike Binder is best known for HBO’s much-maligned The Mind of a Married Man. Brutally honest and often juvenile in its depictions of husbands, the show straddled the uncomfortable line between hard truth and profane comedy with mixed results.
With Upside, Binder focuses on a household full of women, and delivers a surprisingly adult comedy-drama. Offering up plenty of smart dialogue and a pair of big meaty performances from Joan Allen and Kevin Costner, it’s always engaging and occasionally profound.
Allen plays Terry Wolfmeyer, a well-heeled Detroit housewife devastated by her husband’s sudden disappearance (he’s supposedly run off with his Swedish secretary.) Her life turned upside down, Terry both drowns her sorrows and fuels her bitterness with vodka, while struggling to raise four teenage daughters on the brink of discovering their own lives.
Angry, sexy and pointedly funny, Allen shines in a role that would seem tailor-made for someone like Sigourney Weaver. Terry is a volatile character and Allen brings just enough vulnerability to her brittle rage and acid tongue to win our sympathies.
Kevin Costner is equally impressive as the alcoholic and once-famous ballplayer, Denny Davies. A talk radio host who milks his former glories for every dollar he can, Denny is modestly charming, relentlessly disheveled and just a little bit needy. It’s a great role for Costner and he displays a canny self-awareness in his portrayal of a man desperately in search of a second act. Given criticisms of his HBO series, it’s ironic that Binder’s film about a family of women features his most interesting male character yet.
Striving to establish auteur status, Binder does triple duty in the supporting role of Adam “Shep” Goodman, a womanizing radio producer who dates one of Terry’s daughters. Shep’s a louse and a letch, and Binder strikes just the right balance between repulsive and sympathetic. Though his character contributes to two of the movie’s standout scenes — one a hilarious flight of fantasy that imagines his violent demise, the other a brilliantly written monologue defending his involvement with younger women — the movie could have benefited from less Shep and more of Denny and Terry’s relationship.
More problematic are the numerous subplots involving the four daughters. Though each actress is given her ‘big moment,’ Binder has clearly bitten off more than he can chew. There simply isn’t enough time to effectively develop these characters, and as good as the actresses are, their stories come off as trite and irrelevant.
Erratically paced and unevenly plotted, Upside ultimately sags beneath the weight of too many stories given too little time. Nothing illustrates this better than a surprise revelation in the film’s final reel. What could have been a brilliant plot twist instead seems far-fetched and gratuitous.
Ultimately the film’s greatest virtue is in the heart of its leads as they gingerly dance around each other’s emotional baggage, hoping to find a little comfort and grace. Costner and Allen have a genuine chemistry that avoids the clichés of modern romantic comedies. Their relationship is sloppy, tentative and, ultimately, very real. Finding a film that dares to feature adult characters doing adult things is rare indeed. Though far from perfect, The Upside Of Anger provides just enough insight and humanity to make it worth viewing.
Showing at the Birmingham 8 (211 S. Woodward Ave., Birmingham; 248-644-3456) and select theaters.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for MetroTimes. Send comments to [email protected].