“The Upside of Anger” takes a surface look at the life-changing potency of the fury felt by an abandoned spouse. Nicely mounted and engagingly acted by an attractive cast led by the exemplary Joan Allen, Mike Binder’s femme-dominated domestic drama hooks the viewer immediately, and is flecked with enough bitterly comic touches to make this an easy-to-digest variation of an angst-ridden tale. But pic increasingly exhibits a desire to amuse and distract rather than go deep, which ultimately generates disappointment in light of its announced intentions. New Line should expect respectable theatrical B.O. upon March 11 release and better than that in subsequent home viewing markets.
Narrated by one of the main character’s four teenage daughters, tale finds suburban Detroit housewife Terry Wolfmeyer (Allen) in a brittle alcoholic funk after the abrupt departure of her husband, who, she tells her girls, left them for his Swedish secretary.
Her mood hardly helped by incessant listening to immediate post-9/11 news reports, Terry is joined in her daily drinking and smoking by neighbor Denny (Kevin Costner), a former baseball player with little to do aside from hosting a local radio talkshow. As uncomplicated and genial as a golden retriever, Denny good-naturedly swills Bud all day long; he may have long-range ambitions to get into Terry’s pants, but he doesn’t push it, and she could do worse for mindless companionship.
Terry’s daughters are another matter. Eldest Hadley (Alicia Witt) is off to college and none-too-soon, as far as she’s concerned, to escape the domestic pressure cooker. Emily (Keri Russell) is upset her mother doesn’t take her balletic aspirations seriously.
Unsurprisingly, it is the most overtly sexual of the quartet who causes the most trouble for mom. Announcing she has decided not to go to college, Andy (Erika Christensen) accepts Denny’s offer to interview for a job at the radio station. Not only does she get a (nonexistent) job, but she soon lands in the bed of Denny’s producer Shep (Binder), which infuriates everyone who lays eyes on the crass and unkempt middle-age hustler (Andy’s age goes carefully unmentioned).
Then there’s the youngest, 15-year-old Popeye (Evan Rachel Wood), a girl with literary pretensions who, with rather startling bluntness, tries to jump-start a relationship with a new boy in school by offering to have sex with him, only to be rebuffed when he claims to be gay.
With all these hormones bouncing around, Terry decides to get into the act, practically inevitably, with Denny, which, given his amiably bland personality, doesn’t effect their relationship much. This, along with Binder’s increasing interest in the intimate lives of the daughters, prevents the drama from developing in compelling ways where Terry is concerned, which leaves it up to Allen to dig down into her seemingly inexhaustible supply of variations on how to convey degrees of rage, disgust, self-loathing, contempt and agitation.
Maintaining a level gaze and an elevated talent for articulation no matter how much she’s drunk, Terry is redeemed even at her lowest ebb by an awareness of her own ridiculousness, her surprise at the predicament she’s in. Right at the outset, Popeye insists how funny her mother used to be, before the roof caved in, and Allen is especially good at conveying how embarrassing Terry knows she is, especially while drinking. She also sparks well with Costner, who does very nicely here in what is essentially a self-effacing character role.
Unaccountably shot in England but never less than fully convincing as upscale U.S., production is glossily decked out in all respects. One surprise is a score that not only is the first disappointing one from Alexandre Desplat (“Girl With a Pearl Earring,” “Birth”) in recent times, but one that makes the film seem more conventional and emotionally simplistic than it is.
Teen actresses are fine without too much range being demanded of them. But one can only wonder about the motivations behind Binder’s writing himself such an obnoxious part. The former stand-up comedian has played unsympathetic roles before, but here he’s an entirely loathsome cretin, most of whose dialogue consists of defensive rationales as to why it’s a good thing that he sleeps with teens less than half his age.