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Shared Darkness

A Communal Life in Film, Examined

The Upside of Anger

The “Old Made New” designation
had its roots in the recommendation of catalogue titles, films that had
sort of slipped through the cracks or were a bit off the beaten path. One of the great things about “the Internets,” as our president would say, is of course that you can upend more traditional notions of archiving, and slot and re-post things as you see fit.

To that end, given my perhaps surprisingly strong regard for Reign Over Me, I thought it would be an interesting counterbalance to post my review of writer-director Mike Binder’s The Upside of Anger,
his last prior theatrical wide release, which bowed in March of 2005 to
just over $18.5 million domestically. Reading back over the piece, I
was struck by some of the overt thematic similarities — both movies find Binder exploring the post-Sept. 11 world tension in the air — I had forgotten, perhaps because of the more… not distasteful, really, but headache-inducing elements of The Upside of Anger. I have to say, I think Reign Over Me is much more judicious in its moments of pique and showcased frustration. It shows evidence of someone who’s grown leaps and bounds as director. To wit:

An awkward and generally off-putting amalgamation of
codependency and “zeitgeist” posturing written and directed by Mike Binder
(HBO’s The Mind of the Married Man), The Upside of Anger is a romantic
dramedy ostensibly about fury and resentment’s ability to transform, about the
corruptible power it has over not only those exercising it but those under its
umbrella
.

Joan Allen stars as harridan Terry Wolfmeyer, a woman whose
husband suddenly disappears — she thinks the result of an affair. Terry
presides over her four implausibly un-flummoxed teen and young adult daughters
(Alicia Witt, Keri Russell, Erika Christensen and Evan Rachel Wood) and a large
suburban house where it’s loud even when no one is talking due to the forceful
stamp of her furrowed-brow personality
. The Wolfmeyers’ next-door neighbor is
the rumpled Denny Davies (Kevin Costner), an ex-jock turned Detroit
radio deejay who doesn’t want to talk about sports and his baseball career,
even as he signs crates of baseballs to anonymously auction off on eBay. As the
days turn into weeks and more, Terry and Denny engage in a clumsy, discomfited
mating dance, and Denny finds something transforming about all the new estrogen
in his life. Terry is crazy and unhinged, but for whatever reason she helps bring
Denny’s life into focus, and he hers.

The two best things going for The Upside of Anger are its clever casting inversions, which find
the genteel Allen tearing into her rich bitchery with full-hearted aplomb, and
Costner playing a rumpled scalawag who thinks he’s a charmer but no one’s
actually charmed by (at least until the Wolfmeyers come around to his
loose-tongued candor). That both Terry and Denny are functional alcoholics is
fertile (if familiar) comedic ground but a bit of an emotional cop-out. It unnecessarily
negates and blurs their motivations
. The main problem is one of tone, though. In
order for a character as bitter and abrasive as Terry to work, he or she really
has to be set against a more serene background, which the film pretends to have
in the loafing Denny. But The Upside of
Anger
is every bit as shrill and strident as its lead.

The film provokes, sure, but not in a meaningful way. It
doesn’t rankle because it challenges
you, but rather because it’s so clamorous and insistent of its own ornamental,
idiosyncratic charms
. There are a few wild-eyed moments of comic delight — an
awkward dinner scene where the film cements its R rating with a wicked glimpse
into Terry’s mind’s eye — that succeed because you feel the movie isn’t running
along some carefully prescribed track; anything can happen. But overall The Upside of Anger merely comes off as
discordant. Additionally, it must be said that there’s no palpable sisterly
chemistry between the young actresses, and that Swimfan’s Christensen — all giant, blank-faced blinks and eyebrow
quirks — gives a jarringly awful, wince-inducing performance
. Each scene that
foregrounds her is amongst the worst of the movie.

Whatever your appraisal of Binder’s talents as a writer and
actor (he costars here as Adam “Shep” Goodman, Denny’s horndog producer and the
skeazy wooer of Christensen’s middle daughter, Andie), as a director he evinces
no clear sense of control, no ability to carefully mold a scene in order to
bring both the tension and comedy to full boil
— something, say, Sam Mendes
accomplished smashingly in American
Beauty
, a film of suburban dystopia which The Upside of Anger obviously wants to emulate. Setting the movie
several years ago, Binder tries to tie his thesis (that anger’s upside is… that
it’s the person you become?) to post-Sept. 11 world tension in the air. It
works to negligible effect; the screwiness feels patterned and arbitrary
.
There’s little Upside here. (New
Line, R, 116 minutes)

Fracture

Fracture
centers around Ted Crawford (Anthony Hopkins), a well-to-do man who kills his
cheating wife, and readily admits it to the responding police officer. Crawford
has his eyes on a bigger game, though, and mitigating circumstances, including
the lack of a matching weapon, give him several important trump cards when he decides to represent himself in court against hotshot Los
Angeles
assistant district attorney Willy Beachum (Ryan
Gosling).

A very well made genre picture full of smartly modulated
friction
, Fracture
is predicated
on a few significant leaps in believability, certainly (a murder case going to
trial in under two weeks, for one), but director Gregory Hoblit (NYPD Blue, Primal Fear) knows his way
around the criminal justice system. Hopkins,
of course, is reliably steady. Gosling, meanwhile, gives a great, engrossing
performance as the slick, narcissistic Willy — a blithe egotist with one foot
already out the door for a lucrative job at a private law firm
. When he comes under
fire and suddenly finds an embarrassing blight on his near-perfect record, it
ignites in him a deep competitive instinct that Fracture, quite agreeably, never pawns off on a
reawakened idealism. Willy’s a bit of a jerk, actually, but never less
than fascinatingly watchable. For the full capsule review, from CityBeat, click here.

Jennifer Lopez Seeks Credibility

So Jennifer Lopez is back on the warpath. She made a humanizing appearance on American Idol recently, and now she’s searching for her credibility as an actress, which — yes, haters — she at one point actually had, after a stretch of five films from 1996 to ’98 that included Blood and Wine, Selena and U Turn, and culminated with Out of Sight. Paring down her ridiculous profile is one thing that’s clearly within her control (there were times in 2002 when I believe she was doing perfume launch concerts at openings of various Arby’s), but the other thing she really has to do is find some solid dramatic material that reinvents her with critics and, more importantly, reestablishes her with audiences, so that she can then slip back into the sort of glossy, lucrative, utterly forgettable commercial vehicles (Angel Eyes, Maid in Manhattan, Monster-in-Law, et al) that provide her with the ample amounts of fine lotion to which her derriere and legs have become accustomed.

The treacly An Unfinished Life wasn’t such a project, and it ain’t gonna happen with the salsa-movement-starter biopic El Cantante, in which Lopez costars with her emaciated husband, Marc Anthony. It looks like Lopez is doubling down on the socially conscious thriller Bordertown, which reteams her with Selena director Gregory Nava (a good thing), and costars Antonio Banderas, Martin Sheen (of course) and Sonia Braga. But the movie’s just-announced August 31 release date, from distributor THINKFilm, indicates that no one has much confidence in this as any sort of legitimate awards contender, and early, mixed-trending-negative word that’s leaked out from test screenings confirms as much.

Bordertown tells the story of Lauren Fredricks (Lopez), an
ambitious newspaper reporter who’s sent to Juarez, Mexico by her editor (Sheen) to investigate what has happened to hundreds of women who have disappeared, and how local police and authorities have been covering up their brutal rapes and
murders. Lauren looks up her former colleague (and lover, naturally) Alfonso Diaz
(Banderas, above left), and they soon uncover one of
the hottest stories of the year when they come across the only known survivor
of one of these mysterious attacks. The victim is initially reluctant to speak, but
Lauren eventually convinces her to break the silence.

These sorts of earnest-crusader flicks always look good on paper, and I’m not doubting this particular story has some puncher’s worth, but it doesn’t take into account the root of Lopez’s chief appeal, which has always been in parts smoldering, larger-than-life, vengeful, or some loose, rangy combination thereof. The notion of her as an underdog advocate, however driven, still underwhelms. We’ll see. Bordertown doesn’t have the scent of a hit, though, either with critics en masse or the public. Lopez’s quest may have to continue…