I’ll admit that I was a little skeptical going into The Upside of Anger. By the time I was heading to the theater, I’d already seen tons of glowing reviews and Sundance raves, and Joan Allen’s performance was being heralded as nothing short of spectacular. But I remember similar buzz surrounding In the Bedroom several years ago, and I consider that film one of the most overrated dramas in recent memory.
So it was with cautious optimism that I settled in for this dark family comedy written and directed by Mike Binder (who also co-stars). The story centers on the Wolfmeyer women in the wake of their abandonment by the family patriarch. Allen stars as his bitter, alcoholic wife, Terry, who spends much of her time clad in a bathrobe, with a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other. (Note to Binder: thank you so much for resisting any urge to cast Jessica Lange in this role.) Her four daughters seem to be handling their father’s departure with slightly less outward angst—there’s collegian Hadley (Alicia Witt), would-be ballerina and budding anorexic Emily (Keri Russell), directionless Andy (Erika Christensen) and introspective aspiring digital filmmaker “Popeye” (Evan Rachel Wood).
But this is their mother’s story, so their action takes a backseat. Into Terry’s angry, foggy world lumbers Denny Davies (Kevin Costner in what is, for me, the film’s standout performance). Denny is a former Major League ballplayer who’s now overweight, washed up and hosting a radio call-in show where he refuses to discuss baseball. Denny’s a good guy with a big heart, and he quickly finds himself in a turbulent, heated and questionably sound relationship with Terry—a woman still smarting from heartbreak and who wears her hurt like a blanket of porcupine quills. She lashes out at the drop of a hat, can’t seem to connect with her daughters at all and is at risk for having her life slide down the poop shoot.
The film is anchored in Terry and Denny’s affair, but countless tangential storylines shoot out in all directions. Popeye develops a crush on a cute boy with a pot habit. Andy gets a job working on Denny’s show because his lothario producer (Binder) thinks she’s hot. Hadley always maintains a safe distance from the household proceedings by escaping to her school. And poor Emily struggles to reconcile her feelings for her absent parent vs. the one who remains, all the while dreaming of attending a dance academy.
Through it all, Binder manages to keep the action moving and weaves everything together nicely. This isn’t a movie about huge character development or sweeping change, but a slice of life honing in on one dysfunctional set of women. It’s about nuance and the little things—a wry comment, a hurtful glance, a quiet understanding, an unspoken apology.
This is one of Allen’s best roles and she sinks her teeth in, HARD. As Terry, she gets to cut loose in a way that she hasn’t on film before, and it’s fun to watch. She is also complimented perfectly by the usually bland Costner being funny, charming, sweet and strong. As someone who’s never really liked his work, I was converted. Unfortunately, the four younger actresses don’t get as much to do as I would have liked, especially given their collective talent. There were also some details about the girls that seemed to be glossed over or not properly addressed/clarified. As I type this, I still have no idea whether Christensen’s character was supposed to be older or younger than Russell’s. Witt and Wood seem to get especially short-shrifted, though the latter bookends the film with her voiceover.
Thankfully, The Upside of Anger is nowhere near as self-absorbed or self-important or downright b-o-r-i-n-g as In the Bedroom. Both films deal with family tragedy and the human condition, but this one does it really, really well.