Joan Allen is one of the most gifted actors working today. Although she’s perhaps not a household name or a major box office draw, Allen has consistently delivered masterful performances in films such as The Contender, Nixon, and The Bourne Supremacy. In her latest film, The Upside of Anger, Allen once again finds a perfect role – so perfect, in fact, that had the movie come out last December, the actress surely would have found herself a leading Oscar contender. Let’s hope that Academy voters can remember all the way back to spring when they vote for next year’s awards.
Allen plays Terry Wolfmeyer, described in the opening scene as “one of sweetest people you could ever meet.” That changes when her husband abruptly – and without notice – runs off with his mistress. He never calls, never offers an explanation. Nor does his ever make contact with the four daughters: Hadley (Alicia Witt), Emily (Keri Russell), Andrea (Erika Christensen) and “Popeye” (Evan Rachel Wood).
Terry suddenly goes from being sweet to being as bitter as you can imagine. She seethes with resentment toward her husband, calling him “a pig” while in the same breath promising not to bash him in front of her daughters. She criticizes her girls for the choices they make, even while being absent from the decision-making process. Terry also starts drinking constantly, which only fuels her anger and gives it an excuse to spew out. Kevin Costner plays Denny Davies, a former baseball star-turned-radio host who lives down the street and was a friend of Terry’s husband. He too exists in a general state of inebriation, so it’s no surprise that he views Terry as a kindred spirit. His initial attempts at expressing his interest in her are shot down; eventually, though, Terry decides to sleep with him. Their relationship goes through many changes: at first she’s mostly getting mental revenge against her cheating husband, then she’s fighting off loneliness, and finally she starts to realize that Denny fills a void that may have been there all along.
One of the best things about The Upside of Anger is that, while some things about Terry are spelled out pretty clearly, others are implied. You have to read between the lines to fully understand this character. For instance, there is an implication that Terry feels unable to manage the challenge of raising four daughters without her husband’s help. Emily wants to attend a prestigious dance school instead of college. Hadley announces her engagement to a guy Terry has never met. Popeye starts smoking weed and showing interest in boys. Andrea gets a job as an assistant at the radio station and immediately starts sleeping with an older producer named Shep (Mike Binder, who also wrote and directed). These are all tough pills for Terry to swallow, and she doesn’t handle any of the situations well. We get the general impression that she wants her husband to be there to help sort things out; because he’s not, she only has the bottle to turn to.
Joan Allen resists the impulse to overplay the anger her character feels; there’s no scenery chewing here. Instead, the actress plays Terry as a woman who is trying to hold it all together and failing miserably. She is resentful of her husband, unforgiving of her daughters, and defensive to Denny. She’s not trying to be, but it’s happening anyway. This approach is a lot more challenging to play and, for the audience, a lot more rewarding to watch. Allen lets us see all the chinks in the character’s armor.
I really liked Kevin Costner in this movie too. He brings a low-key, perpetually laid back quality to Denny that contrasts nicely with what Allen does as Terry. Costner has become something of a character actor in the past few years, appearing in smaller pictures like this one and Open Range. In doing so, we are getting to see more interesting performances than he gave in big budget studio films like For Love of the Game or 3000 Miles to Graceland. Costner has a lot of range and it’s nice to see him use it. He really gets a handle on Denny and makes the character not only believable but also influential to the others.
The actresses playing the Wolfmeyer daughters are all terrific as well, particularly Evan Rachel Wood (Thirteen, The Missing) who plays Popeye with just the right mix of adolescent naivete and wisdom beyond her years.
Writer/director Mike Binder (Indian Summer, HBO’s “The Mind of the Married Man”) has put together a solid screenplay with laughs and real insight. One of my favorite moments in the film comes when Terry confronts Shep about the fact that he’s sleeping with her daughter. After getting slapped multiple times, Shep explains why he’d rather date appreciative younger women than bitter women his own age – women like Terry. Most movies would have cast Shep simply as a pervert or an object of scorn. The Upside of Anger finds a little nugget of truth in the guy’s motivation, and that makes him far more interesting than we expect. Binder has done this sort of thing all over the film.
There were a few moments here and there that seemed a bit too sitcom-like for my taste – like Popeye’s male friend getting stoned and bungee jumping out of a tree - but they’re few and far between. For the most part, this is an intelligent and emotional story with something worthwhile to say. The ending goes in a very unexpected direction and, without giving it away, makes a crucial point: anger and resentment are wasted emotions that do nothing but poison you, often needlessly. “The upside of anger,” Popeye explains in a voiceover, “is the person you become.” She’s right. People who can learn to cope with their anger – rather than letting it gush like a geyser – usually become stronger, better and, yes, happier people in the end. It’s a total joy to watch a movie with the wisdom to impart such a message.
( 1/2 out of four)
The Upside of Anger is rated R for language, sexual situations, brief comic violence and some drug use. The running time is 1 hour and 58 minutes.
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