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)


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