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Published: Friday, 4/1/2005

Movie review: The Upside of Anger ****

BY NANCIANN CHERRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

"Anger has turned my mother into a sad, bitter woman. If she wasn't my mother, I'd slap her."

Not exactly a promising start for a comedy, is it?

Well, The Upside of Anger isn't exactly a comedy. And it's not exactly a drama, either. It is, for better or for worse, a slice of life: sometimes sad, sometimes frustrating, sometimes hysterically funny, sometimes just hysterical, and generally messy, very, very messy.

That's what makes it so good.

Joan Allen and Kevin Costner star in the film written and directed by Mike Binder, who also co-stars, and these three performances are potential award-winners. That's no surprise for Allen, who has portrayed women as diverse as the jealous Puritan wife of Daniel Day-Lewis in The Crucible, Pat Nixon in Oliver Stone's Nixon, and a vice-presidential candidate in the eye of a storm in The Contender.

Costner is somewhat of a surprise, although he shouldn't be. He's always done well playing an ordinary guy in movies such as Field of Dreams and Bull Durham, but his less-than-successful "epics" (The Postman, Waterworld) have diminished that regard. His character in The Upside of Anger is a combination of the sorts he played in Field of Dreams and Tin Cup, but a whole lot more rumpled.

And Binder is so smooth as the story's cheerful self-centered lecher that he might have been a brother to Thomas Haden Church's character in Sideways.

The Upside of Anger is the kind of movie in which everyone has plenty of money, big houses, and nice clothes and cars, so there are no messy details about job demands to get in the way of the plot or spoil the time line of the action. There are also, upon reflection, great gaping questions about why people behaved a certain way and how things could have happened.

But his cast, including the lesser performers, is so good, it's easy to ignore some of the questions and forgive the rest. What makes the performances so compelling is that the characters are deeply flawed. They are sinners more than saints, and when they do begin to show some signs of redemption, there's plenty of back-sliding to keep them bracingly human.

Allen plays Terry Wolfmeyer, whose husband has apparently deserted her and their four daughters, preferring instead the

company of his young assistant, who has returned to Sweden.

She reacts by becoming an angry, bitter drunk, wandering around her huge West Bloomfield, Mich., home (writer Binder is from Detroit) in her nightclothes, vodka and tonic never far away. Her four daughters, college-student Hadley (Alicia Witt), job-hunting Andy (Erika Christensen), high-school student Emily (Keri Russell), and middle-schooler Popeye (Evan Rachel Wood), take care of themselves and the house as best they can.

Costner is Denny Davies, a former star pitcher for the Detroit Tigers who spends his days boozing, signing baseballs to sell on eBay and at mall openings, and hosting a radio talk show, during which he refuses to talk about baseball. Davies is a neighbor of the Wolfmeyers, and he has always been attracted to Terry. Or, perhaps, he has been attracted to Terry's life, a busy house filled with the good smells of supper cooking and the liveliness of youngsters. In either case, Denny becomes Terry's drinking buddy.

Slowly, Terry begins climbing out of her fog, but she is far from turning into the perfect, perky mother, especially when she surveys the shambles of her life.

As she tells Denny, "I have four daughters: one who hates me, three who are trying to decide."

Graduating from college, Hadley announces that she is pregnant and is getting married. Terry deals with the news by getting sloshed at a luncheon to meet Hadley's future in-laws and embarrassing Hadley again.

Andy, with Denny's help, has gotten a job as a production assistant at the radio station, where she begins an affair with Shep. Terry is less than enthusiastic about her 18-year-old daughter sleeping with a 40-year-old producer, and in one of the movie's funniest scenes, she daydreams about revenge.

Emily, who is having the hardest time with her father's desertion, wants to escape to an arts college, where she can train for the ballet. Terry forbids it, telling her she needs to get some serious job skills if she doesn't want to end up dependent on a man.

Popeye seems unaffected by the family storms, but she feels things quietly and deeply, so much so that she flies under Terry's maternal radar. Denny, however, provides the stability she needs. And Denny isn't exactly a poster boy for New Age sensitive men.

Binder's screenplay is sharp, funny, and observant. It isn't filled with one-liners, but those that he has are real zingers.

If The Upside of Anger belongs to anyone, it is Allen. At times she is so filled with rage, she seems ready to combust. When she's wallowing in hurt, sorry, and yes, self-pity, she is funny and infuriating, all at once. But her emotions never, ever seem forced. She makes us feel Terry's pain, her anger, her occasional contentment, and her fleeting periods of joy.

The Upside of Anger isn't perfect, but despite its occasional credibility problems, Allen is a force to be reckoned with, and her co-stars aren't far behind.

Contact Nanciann Cherry at: ncherry@theblade.com

or 419-724-6130.



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