The Upside of Anger is a change of pace for Joan Allen, a gifted actress whose previous works — notably The Ice Storm, The Contender and Nixon — consisted of portraying repressed, emotionally remote characters. By contrast, Anger‘s Terry Ann Wolfmeyer is anything but demure. After her husband apparently skips off to Europe to shack up with a Swedish secretary, Terry finds herself pissed at the world and balancing an SUV-sized chip on her shoulder. And it leaves this affluent Michigan housewife at home alone to cope with four beautiful daughters, with whom she fights over everything from their chosen careers to chosen boyfriends.
Let’s say this upfront: Joan Allen’s work as the vodka-swilling, acid-tongued Terry is worth the price of admission all by itself. Her performance is a wonder of controlled, sardonic ferocity.
And she ain’t alone. Kevin Costner is almost as impressive as Terry’s neighbor Denny Davies, a scraggly, no-account ex-baseball star (what else?) for the Detroit Tigers. Both Terry and Denny are drawn together by loneliness and their affinity for boozing, and it doesn’t take long before the retired pitcher is hanging around the uptight, if comfortable, Wolfmeyer household.
Unfortunately, things sag from there on.
Writer-director Mike Binder apparently used up most of his creative juices imagining the two middle-aged lovers at the movie’s core. Although he has given himself a scene-stealing role as Denny’s sleazebag radio producer, Binder is far less generous to the other actors. The Wolfmeyer daughters (Alicia Witt, Keri Russell, Erika Christensen and Evan Rachel Wood), who range in age from their mid-teens to early-20s, seem especially stranded by sketchy characterization. They are cardboard cutouts devised solely for the purpose of instigating familial conflict; we have the dancer who doesn’t eat, the pretty one who doesn’t want to go to college and so on. Only Wood, who was so impressive in Thirteen, manages to find shades of depth as the youngest daughter.
Despite a handful of funny scenes and a lot of arguments — and always in public settings with plenty of onlookers (a particular peeve of mine in movies) — not much actually happens in Upside of Anger. Binder, whose chief contribution to our popular culture until now was HBO’s The Mind of the Married Man series, is saddled by his own ambitions. The moves opens with the principal characters gathered at a funeral before we shuttle back in time three years to begin the story proper. It’s a nifty narrative device — whose funeral is it? — but Binder keeps scratching this gimmick until it starts to bleed. He toys with his audience to second-guess which character was in that opening-scene coffin, offering us such possible suspects as a suddenly ill Wolfmeyer daughter and a peripheral character obsessed with bungee jumping. You half-expect Hercule Poirot to pop up from behind a sofa and reveal the corpse before the ending credits roll.
And speaking of the ending — don’t worry, I’m not revealing more — suffice it to say that it’s a full-blown annoyance. The ostensible twist does boast dramatic potential, but Binder has cheated mightily in order to get us there. In the world Denny might refer to, you could say that Binder corked the bat for what turns out to be nothing more than an infield grounder.