A film review by Craig J. Koban

 

 

Rank: #19

THE UPSIDE OF ANGER jjjj

2005, R, 118 mins.

Terry Wolfmeyer: Joan Allen / Denny Davies: Kevin Costner / Andy Wolfmeyer: Erika Christensen / Lavender "Popeye" Wolfmeyer: Evan Rachel Wood / Emily Wolfmeyer: Kerri Russell / Hadley Woflmeyer: Alicia Witt / Adam "Shep" Goodman: Mike Binder / David Junior: Tom Harper

Directed and written by Mike Binder

Let me be the first to say that I have always been a Kevin Costner apologist when all others have shunned him with ridicule and contempt.  Actually, scratch that last comment - I have always been a firm and steadfast supporter of his work.  Yes, Costner is an actor who has made some truly miserable films (i.e. - WATERWORLD, REVENGE, DRAGONFLY, and 3000 MILES TO GRACELAND, to name a few).  Yes, Costner is an actor of limited range (he would never be a strong performer in a period piece, but then again, neither would an actor like Gary Cooper, who Costner has sometimes been referred to in his early film work).   

Yet, Costner is a Hollywood player that really has nothing to prove.  He was in two of the very best films of the 1980's in BULL DURHAM and FIELD OF DREAMS and was in three of the best films of the 1990's - DANCES WITH WOLVES, JFK, and A PERFECT WORLD -  the latter which I thought, at the time, contained his best performance.  His 2002 film - OPEN RANGE - was one that I placed on my list of the ten best films of that year.  Costner also is an Academy Award winning director.  Not only that, but he really is a good actor.  Okay, he does not have a lot depth with his work, but he is always sincere and earnest with his performances that carry weight and a sort of quiet strength and nobility.  In short, whether you want to admit it or not, Costner has an impressive resume, to be sure. 

With his list of accomplishments, notwithstanding all of the slack that he gets from critics, it may surprise many to see him churn out one of this year's most effortless and endearing performances in the new drama-comedy THE UPSIDE OF ANGER, which in itself is one of 2005's best written and acted films.  It is also noteworthy because he is teamed up with Joan Allen, who is arguably one of the truly finest actresses in contemporary American cinema.  They both carve out rich and layered performances of people that suffer from the same two afflictions - a meaningless life and alcoholism.  The difference between the two is largely in how they respectively cope and deal with their dilemmas and how they help each other out in the process.  

THE UPSIDE OF ANGER is about grief, pain, affliction, but ultimately about how to accept your station in life, hang your head high, and get on with things.  All of this, of course, is presented in a vibrant and nuanced human drama where the actors do something that seems easy, but really is difficult.  They make us like their characters despite how hostile, rude, vindictive, and crass they are willing to be at all times.  In this instance, Costner and Allen sort of achieve a minor miracle in the film.  Rarely have we invested in and have had characters that resonate within us that are such irrepressible SOB's.  It sort of takes a certain level of subtlety, restraint, and appeal to achieve that, and Costner and Allen pull it off rather winningly.  They create two of the most memorable personas of the year in a film that does a fairly brilliant job at juggling heart-warming sentiment, rough-edged characters, smart writing, and a sly and dark sense of humor. 

I find THE UPSIDE OF ANGER sort of ironic when considering Costner in his role.  He became hugely popular playing characters associated with baseball.  He played a minor leaguer in BULL DURHAM and a discontented Iowa farmer in FIELD OF DREAMS, who was a baseball fanatic.  Now, since he has grown far too old to effectively play a baseball player convincingly, he has done the next logical thing in this new film – he plays an out of shape and washed up player looking for meaning in his otherwise meaningless existence.  By playing the ex-Detroit Tiger Denny Davies, whose own deteriorating age and health made him leave the game, Costner has sort of come full circle.  He started playing wiseasses and sardonic sports figures that had a gleeful and frank sense of humor about them.  Yes, Denny is a figure that has Costner’s characteristic off-kilter slyness, yet he is ostensibly a much different man.  He’s cocky, exuberant and has charm, but there’s always a sense of a a painful, buried angst that even manages to come through his irreverence.  He laughs a lot on the outside, but there always seems to be pain underneath his charismatic façade.  Basically, he makes a perfect man for the equally hapless and troubled Terry. 

As the film opens Terry (played vividly in an Oscar worthy turn by Allen) faces a devastating prospect.  Her husband, Gray, has apparently vanished without a trace.  She presumably believes that he has run off to Europe with gorgeous secretary.  As a result, Terry is left all by her lonesome to deal with and continue to raise her four teenage daughters.  Unfortunately for Terry, all four possess their own respective level of nihilism, angst, and rebelliousness, usually all directed at her.  Whereas the daughters try, more or less, to deal with their problems in forthright and honest ways, Terry only finds solace in a glass of vodka and tonic, which seems to be her drink of choice for every major meal of the day.  Terry, however, is not a closet alcoholic; rather, she tries very little to hide her addiction.   Throughout the film, she demonstrates her keen and astute ability at not being able to relate or deal with any of her daughter’s issues, much to their dismay.  She sort of single-handedly creates most of the gulfs in her relationships with them. 

The daughters are also all well-realized characters who sort of both hate and love their mother for different reasons.  There is Hadley (Alicia Witt) who is the college student of the family and takes great pains to disrespect her mother and can’t wait for summer vacation to be over so she can leave her behind.  Then there is Andy (Erica Christianson) who decides that college life is not for her and instead gets a job at a local radio station and gets involved in a sleazy affair with her much older boss (played well in a slimy and lecherous performance by writer/director Mike Binder).  Then there is Emily (the always pleasant Keri Russell) who truly is at war with her mother.  She desperately wants to be a dancer, but the upper class snob that is Terry can’t see a prosperous career for her in the arts.  Finally, there is Popeye (Evan Rachel Wood) who seems to be the most mature and articulate of all of them.  She basically wants the simple things that most young adolescents want – like to experiment with drugs and kiss a boy she has a crush on. 

As if this disorderly and riotous family did not have enough problems, then enters yet another alcoholic into their lives.  Denny (Costner) has long past his glory days on the ball diamond and now works as a radio talk show host with an interesting twist – he refuses to discuss the game of baseball for any reason whatsoever.  He seems curiously bored by all things sports related.  He, much like Terry, is a lonely, pathetic, and isolated character that sort of shamelessly lives his existence with one hand on a beer bottle and the other signing hundreds of baseballs and selling them online, perhaps to facilitate his drunken habit.  Denny feels the need to drink all of the time, and is one of those “friendly” and happy-go-lucky inebriated people, but he seems to desire someone to drink with more.  When Terry’s husband is gone, Denny quickly shows up to be her friend.  He lives pretty much next door and really likes her, maybe because her wounds and strife are a comforting reflection of his own dilapidated psyche and sense of inner solitude. 

Despite the fact that Costner’s Denny is a raging alcoholic and would, under most circumstances, not be a fitting role model of behaviour to be thrown into an already troubled family, he nevertheless becomes a strangely stabilizing influence on them.  It seems completely inevitable that both Terry and Denny will grow to love each other and that the girls will be won over by his cool and detached allure and his penchant for speaking his mind openly and honestly.  The development of the story’s narrative is not what separates it from other family dramas.  THE UPSIDE OF ANGER is highly unique in the sense that it does not sugar coat its respective characters or make huge strides to make us like them all.  All of the daughters are warm and likeable, but all exhibit flaws to their personalities.  You can see their ardent perspective on all things that pertain to their mother, but you still somewhat condemn them for their oftentimes cruel and tortuous ways in which they confront Terry’s problems while not really trying to help her.  These daughters are smartly written and are all very lucid and sharp minded personas that we invest in, even while we sometimes disagree with them. 

Then there is Terry and Denny.   I loved the film’s persistence to not pander down to the lowest common denominator of audience expectations.  In atypical romantic melodramas the lovers are fairly squeaky clean despite some personal eccentricities.  However, the difference with Terry and Benny is the rare amount of depth and complexity that their characters possess.  There are not affable, pleasant, and congenial people by commonly held perceptions.  Terry and Benny have a sort of perverse honesty with one another, and say things to each other that are laced with such hard hitting truths that most normal couples would only dream of attaining.  We both like and hate Terry and Benny.  We like them because of their vulnerabilities and social awkwardness.  However, we despise them for their self-destructing habits.  They are drunks, pure and simple, and their lack of willingness to part with their disease inspires our contempt.  Yet, it is their angst where the real heart of the film lies, and at least they are willing to acknowledge the existentialist funk that they are in. 

Films like THE UPSIDE OF ANGER are rarely as candid and honest with their characters.  I love the fact the Terry is not afraid to lament on her disappointment with her young daughter sleeping with a man twice her age (can we blame her?), nor can we dismiss the other daughter for being filled with so much vilification for her mother’s stubborn refusal to accept the fact that she loves dance.  Costner’s character may be the most gracious and good of the bunch, which sort of steps in and provides Terry’s family with the swift and blunt slap in the face it desperately needs.  Benny is by no means a completely honorable man, but all of his scenes ring so truthfully, especially during one violent confrontation he has with Terry during which he lays all of his cards on the table and confronts her with the notion that she’ll never again meet another man that will be as patient with her as him.  Even the seedy radio producer is a refreshingly guileless figure.  He is a pig who likes to sleep with young and attractive women who are young enough to be his daughter, but he never denies that sentiment during the course of the film, nor does he try to hide from it. 

THE UPSIDE OF ANGER is one of those high commodity films in terms of allowing its characters to shine in there individual moments.  Director/writer Binder is able to create complex, realistic, endearing, and, most importantly, deeply flawed characters.  The film also has a great time showing two very talented actors who are allowed to play roles that sort of reflect upon and reveal their own comfort levels with getting older.  Allen and Costner deliver pitch perfect performances, and Costner again shows how he can be so effective at dialing down his acting by just inhabiting his characters.  This film is a winning amalgamation of putrid self-misery and loathing with strong dark comedy and is further mixed with a third act that provides some sort of agonizing poetic irony.  The film kind of is indicative of life in general – sometimes it can play sick and cruel jokes on you, even when you think you are at your absolute lowest.  This is a small gem of a film – funny, sad, whimsical, intelligent, and ultimately filled with optimism.

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