Upside of Anger: Costner's Comeback?

Playing a drunken, bitter matriarch, Joan Allen gives such an astounding performance in The Upside of Anger that she elevates the film at least two notches above its melodramatic trappings and conventional visual style. Though Allen is the center of this realistic serio-comedy, she is assisted by Kevin Costner who, after years of disappointing roles (3,000 Miles to Graceland, Dragonfly), renders one of his subtlest and most fully realized performance to date.

In a year conspicuously marked by the lack of good lead roles for American actresses, Joan Allen would have been a shoo-in for Oscar considerations. The Academy is notorious for its short memory, but, hopefully, this March release will not be forgotten at year's end.

Though the movie year has just begun, I can't foresee many more films dominated by a performance of Allen's caliber. Appearing in almost every scene, and registering different moods and emotions, often within a single scene or a sentence, Joan Allen gives the first truly great performance of 2005.

As an ensemble piece, Upside of Anger benefits from a quartet of young and gifted actresses, Erika Christensen, Evan Rachel Wood, Keri Russell, and Alicia Witt, who play Allen's daughters.

While accomplished acting is the most striking element, the film has other merits. Particularly noteworthy is the writing by Mike Binder, who shows a deft ear for seemingly routine conversations, punctuated by witty and acerbic line. If Upside of Anger were as well directed and technically mounted as it is splendidly acted, it would have been a much better picture. However, as evident in previous films (Crossing the Bridge, Indian Summer) Binder's work suffers from problems that afflict most films directed by actors: great attention to performances at the expense of narrative fluidity, pacing, and visual style.

Allen stars as the sharp-witted Terry Wolfmeyer, a suburban wife and mother whose life takes an unusual turn when her husband mysteriously disappears. Struggling to deal with his sudden absence, Terry finds herself increasingly at odds with her four headstrong daughters. What's a bitter middle-aged woman to do Feeling sorry for herself, she drowns her anger in alcohol and temperamental tantrums that seem to come out of nowhere; a slight provocation is enough to throw Terry off the wall.

Things change when Terry begins to develop an offbeat relationship with her next-door neighbor, Denny (Costner). A once-great baseball star turned radio DJ, Denny becomes Terry's drinking buddy, slowly evolving into her source of strength as well as an ad-hoc father to her daughters.

The dynamics of family relationships gets even more complicated, when Terry's daughters grow accustomed to having Denny, the only steady male presence, around, while attempting to juggle not only their mother's romantic dilemmas but also their very own.

At turns funny, poignant and bittersweet, Upside of Anger feels like a personal movie for Binder. The script was inspired by his own experience as a product of divorce, and by his desire to explore the impact that anger of one member, Terry, has on the entire family.

The screenplay is judiciously conceived as a parable on misplaced anger, the things in life that men and women spend so much time being angry and upset about, only to later realize that what they thought was right was actually wrong, and what was wrong was actually right. This becomes very clear at the end of the film, a truly unexpected twist that can't be disclosed here.

Upside of Anger represents a departure from Binder's previous work, which includes light-hearted looks at love and relationships in the comedy The Sex Monster, and the HBO series The Mind of the Married Man. In Upside of Anger, Binder explores a new territory from a unique angle. It's always a challenge for male directors to write credible roles for women, and this movie has five such roles, but Binder acquits himself with a poignant screenplay about the innermost feelings of a woman, who goes through a mid-life crisis, under the impression that her husband has dumped her for a younger girl.

Original, truthful, and funny in a mature way, Upside of Anger is the kind of movie we do not see anymore. I don't wish to over-praise the movie by claiming that it's on the level of Woody Allen (a rare director, who writes better roles for women than men) in films like Interiors or Hannah and Her Sisters (both about a mother and her three daughters), but in its good moments, which are plentiful, the movie does recall Allen and also Richard La Gravenese's Living Out Loud, with Holly Hunter, a contemporary of Joan Allen and just as terrific an actress.

Blending elements of comedy, drama and family films, Upside of Anger does not cleanly fit into any predisposed genre category. That said, while the film is emotionally pleasing, it might suffer in the contemporary youth-driven market from being femme-driven, and that its leads are actors of a certain age. The film should resonate strongly with women undergoing and divorce, and women who serve as heads of single-parent families.

Binder male perspective is reflected through the character of Denny, a retired professional baseball player turned radio DJ played by Costner. Denny is a man's man, used to operating in an all man's world. That is, until he meets the Wolfmeyer family and becomes intrigued and involved in the lives of each of its female figures. Indeed, despite Terry's initial objection, gradually, Denny becomes an integral part of the.

Addressing the impact of anger on older and younger characters, from both a male and female perspective, Upside of Anger also examines the effects of hidden and repressed emotions on each individual member and the family as a whole.

People often say, bad marriages are not good for the family, or, it's better for all concerned, but we seldom hear about the toll it takes on women and children whose fathers are suddenly no longer a part of their lives. More specifically, Upside of Anger asks: How does it feel to be a jilted woman What does it do to her identity, desirability, and self-esteem

For the most part, Upside of Anger is a comedy, but it also has some serious and poignant parts throughout. A multidimensional character, Terry is the kind of woman who's incredibly charming one day, and tearing her hair out, yelling and screaming, the next day.

It's an ideal role for an actress like Joan Allen, who displays a whole gamut of strong emotions and contradictory states: the domineering mom, who can be as defenseless, dependant, and childish as her youngest daughter; the bitter bitch who under the right circumstances softens up, the sexually repressed woman, who goes from complete disregarding for her libido to demanding that her sexual needs be gratified right away, even if it's early in the morning.

There are a couple of hilarious scenes, in which Terry and Denny, clearly physically attracted to each other, plan to have sex, but are defeated by their own egos and notions of dignity and pride

Still better-known for her dramatic roles in Nixon, The Crucibles, and The Contender (all Oscar-nominated), Allen gets a chance to flex her comedic muscles in a role specifically written for her. The expression of intense emotions comes easy to Allen, who has enacted before the rage, grief, and unrequited passion of troubled, often-cheated-on wives in films as diverse as the action movie Face/Off, the searing biopic Nixon, the period drama The Crucibles. One of the most grounded actresses around, Allen provides the emotion center of gravity in Upside of Anger.

For a while she became known as the preeminent interpreter of noble, intelligent, and long-suffering wives. She played Pat Nixon in a typically restrained, closely observed performance, then another suffering wife in The Crucible, and still another one in The Ice Storm. But in several of her films, she shows ability to change. In Upside of Anger, as in Pleasantville (also a New Line picture), Allen the repressed suburban housewife discovers her art, her soul, and her sexuality

In the pivotal role of Denny, a retired baseball player and Terry's next-door neighbor turned love interest, Kevin Costner renders his most charismatic and relaxed performance in decades. It's impossible to watch Costner, a vet of portraying baseball players, without fondly recalling his performances in Bull Durham and Field of Dreams. But Upside of Anger offers a different character from those of past athletes he has portrayed. For one thing, Costner seems relaxed and perfectly comfy as still-attractive but no more glamorous middle-aged star.

The twist on his character as a retired player is that he hasn't yet acknowledged the game of baseball–Denny is a sports radio DJ, who likes to talk about everything but baseball, a man who wants his life to move on. He is not the prototypical athlete who is looking to score with the girls. He doesn't try to cash in on his past fame, he really just wants to fit in somewhere, and as chaotic and problematic as it is, the new Wolfmayer family offers him this unique opportunity.

Like Allen's, Costner's performance profits from the film's mixture of tones and themes, and like Allen, Costner seems intrigued by the opportunity it presented him for a change of pace. It's the quality of the writing that makes Upside of Anger funny and angry at the same time, dark and light in equal measure. Having lived through divorce himself, Costner must have recognized many of the painful and shameful experiences Denny goes through. This is a Costner we have not seen enough of in movies: sexy, funny, generous, and accepting of his age and lot in life–and in Hollywood.

Four gifted young actresses portray the Wolfmeyer daughters. Though they have brief scenes and basically play supporting roles, each of the four daughters represents a fully fleshed-out character.

Alicia Witt plays Hadley, the oldest Wolfmeyer daughter who blames her mother for her father's departure. Hadley maintains a difficult relationship with her mother throughout the film, marked by tension, anger, and acrimony. The audience recognizes immediately that both women are very much alike, which is the reason they don't get along. The conflict is resolved at the end, when Hadley loses her fighting edge, achieving new maturity, based on the recognition that the constant battles are not worth it anymore.

While all the daughters have their own version of anger towards their mom, Emily (Keri Russell) has the most confrontational scenes with her. Always pushing her, Emily is really outwardly vocal about mom's drinking. Playing the role of the mischievous Andy Wolfmeyer, Erika Christensen (Michael Douglas's drug-addict daughter in Traffic). Evan Rachel Wood portrays Popeye, the youngest of the Wolfmeyer clan, who serves as the film's narrator

It's too bad Upside of Anger is technically mediocre and unevenly paced since the film is heartfelt in an effortless manner. A movie geared towards adults, Upside of Anger lacks the polish of American Beauty, but it's a comedy in which the humor derives directly from the reality of the situations and the characters' reactions to them. Ultimately, the key to the film's appeal resides in one issue: How relatable are the varieties of the Wolfmeyer family's ins-and-outs to the viewers' own family dynamics