A moderately surprising, yet awkward ending to writer/director Mike Binder's "The Upside of Anger" does little to damage the emotionally satisfying impact for this film starring Joan Allen and Kevin Costner with strong supporting performances by Alicia Witt, Keri Russell, Evan Rachel Wood and Erika Christensen.
"The Upside of Anger" works largely due to a powerful performance by Joan Allen. Binder had appeared with Allen in "The Contender," and wrote this script with her in mind. The role, as Terry Wolfmeyer, a previously happy and loving wife/mother whose husband suddenly disappears (believed to have run off with his Swedish secretary) leaving his wife to raise four teenage daughters.
In some ways, the film feels like "Ordinary People," but it doesn't begin to work on that level and lacks the character development of that film. Yet, much like that film, Binder's characters here are all quite deeply flawed humans struggling to deal with authentic and understandable human emotions.
One can hardly blame Allen's character for crumbling under the weight of her rage and despair. Allen is perfectly cast in this role as a mother who can't seem to control her emotions, her children or her drinking. Allen is simply marvelous in adding little nuances, gestures and looks that say so much with utter simplicity. There's a scene very early in the film where she is saying goodbye to her daughter leaving for college...Allen hugs her...then adds that very simple "shoulder inward" move that we all make when we're saying goodbye BUT we just can't say it. It was beautiful and powerful...it was as if even in the midst of her raging emotions and alcohol daze the very core of her being remembered "I love her." From rage to innocence to humiliation to passion to conviction, Allen's performance raises what could have been a movie of the week into a gripping drama.
Likewise, much to my surprise, Kevin Costner offers a wonderful, understated performance as a retired baseball player turned radio talk-show host who spends much of the film getting drunk with Allen's character, yet, deep down has something within him just crying to come out. It's almost like Costner's holding an inner "Field of Dreams." It's a strong performance for an actor who normally leaves me very cold...perhaps my only quibble is my final impression. After a strong performance, there's a closing shot of Costner's looking at Allen during the "twist" towards the end. The look on Costner's face lacked the conviction and intensity that had been prevalent throughout much of the film. It was, perhaps, most noticeable due to the fact that he had been so strong throughout the rest of the film. It's a minor quibble made slightly more powerful due to the fact that it was how I was left to remember him in this film.
Binder's script is powerful, but tries to accomplish too much in developing the anger aspect, grief aspect and sub-stories for each of the four daughters. Unfortunately, it becomes noticeable when the film focuses on the daughters. The characters simply weren't developed enough for me to care as deeply about them...most noticeably, this is true with Alicia Witt's portrayal of Hadley. While Witt does what she can here, the script has the character away at college...then graduating...then moving on in life through dramatic situations...yet, there's no foundation for the conflicts that are birthed. The same is somewhat true for Keri Russell's Emily, a dance student who is clearly holding in much anger/stress and bitter over her mother's refusal to accept her dream of being a dancer. Yet, Russell, who studied dance in real life, adds a depth that adds a greater attraction to her character. It's easier to feel her pain even though it's hard to understand where it comes from most of the time.
The problem is less of an issue for the other two daughters, but that may well be due to the stronger performances offered. Evan Rachel Wood, who was so marvelous in last year's "Thirteen," offers a multi-layered and heartbreaking performance as Popeye, the youngest of the daughters. From emotional confusion to adolescent crush to loyalty and friendship, Wood's performance is a joy to behold as she is attracted to a young man who has some inner turmoil of his own. Likewise, Erika Christensen's performance as Andy is surprisingly effective as she journeys through an obviously abusive relationship, becomes empowered and remains loyal to her family.
Binder himself is cast as "Shep," a radio producer who beds girls half his age. Clearly the most unattractive of all the characters, Binder's performance is also the weakest of the bunch. I wanted more explanation of who he was and why he was...not just "here's the jerk of the film." It was a surprisingly shallow character that needed to be more fleshed out.
The surprise ending hit me quite emotionally as I myself had a very similar experience not that long ago. Yet, in this film, the twist left a few unanswered questions and left the ending feeling rushed and a bit disconnected.
Kudos also for the score and soundtrack, though it seemed a bit loud in places AND I found myself in disagreement over production design choices, especially related to costuming and make-up for Ms. Allen. Over the closing credits I heard one of the more beautiful film songs I've heard in awhile, "One Safe Place" by Marc Cohn. The lyrics are beautiful and it's a perfect song to end the film as it sort of allows an emotional debriefing from the film.
"The Upside of Anger" is an emotionally satisfying yet moderately flawed exercise in filmmaking. The film features wonderful performances by its leads, Joan Allen and Kevin Costner along with especially strong performances by Evan Rachel Wood and Erika Christensen in supporting roles. It's an intelligent drama that explores the issues of family, loyalty, grief and healing that may not always ring true, but avoid "selling the drama." I recommend "The Upside of Anger" with only moderate reservations.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic