The Upside of Anger
First screened in April 2005 / Most recently screened in June 2014 / Reviewed in August 2014
Director: Mike Binder. Cast: Joan Allen, Kevin Costner, Mike Binder, Keri Russell, Evan Rachel Wood, Erika Christensen, Alicia Witt, Dane Christensen, Tom Harper. Screenplay: Mike Binder.

Twitter Capsule: Very funny. At times smells of sitcom. Girls, Costner good but Allen hits a grand slam. Where are her prizes?

VOR:   Welcome tinkering with "woman's film" template. Even better as imaginary cable pilot. Challenges audience on some expectations. Allen's performance a must-see.

Photo © 2005 New Line Cinema/Fine Line Features/Media 8 Entertainment
The Upside of Anger debuted in 2005. The same year saw the premiere of Kyra Sedgwick's TNT police procedural The Closer, the show most often cited as kickstarting the post-Y2K phenomenon of prestige film actresses migrating to television in pursuit of richer material and more regular employment. If Sedgwick's program emerged quickly as an exemplar, it wasn't an anomaly, even in its vintage. 2005 was also the year Mary-Louise Parker started selling pot on Showtime's Weeds, Patricia Arquette abetted the cops by Oda Mae'ing with the dead on NBC's Medium, and Geena Davis played the U.S. president on ABC's Commander in Chief. Across broadcast networks, basic cable, and premium channels, then, and with major awards-group enthusiasm across the board, TV certified itself as a haven for women with tony careers who wanted to tackle complicated parts in long-arc plots. The notably wan Best Actress lineup at the same year's Academy Awards only cemented the case from the other direction; Reese Witherspoon coasted to victory by being perfectly fine in Walk the Line and Judi Dench and Charlize Theron got nominated for holding down the fort in movies your relatives never heard of.

The narrow takeaway from this bit of synchronic context is that Joan Allen should have owned that Academy Award. Oscar nuts often relate to her heroic turn in The Upside of Anger as if it were the ghost orchid in Adaptation: a fabled treasure worth seeking out, a beauty that would conquer every flower show if only someone could actually find it. Released on April Fool's Day, which in Oscar terms is like launching a PR campaign in the middle of an Everglade, Allen earned a front-runner's reviews but showed up on zero lists at year's end, even as critics and commentators noted the slim pickings in what was rightfully her category. (As so often, the Best Actress-nominated films all bowed between late October and December.) I'm firmly in the camp that believes if Allen could only have gotten on the ballot she likely could have won, not just for doing and risking more than Witherspoon does (subjective) but for hitting this creative peak after a full decade of lionized film work from Nixon onward (objective). That track record would have furnished her a sheen of being "overdue," which never hurts. She also dazzled that summer as a sexy scientist speaking iambic pentameter with her Lebanese lover in Sally Potter's Yes, which must have enormously impressed the four Academy members who saw that movie.

The richer lesson here, addressing the whole film and not just its crown-jewel star, is that Upside is better-than-average as a mid-budget suburban film dramedy but positively gangbusters if you imagine it as a two-hour television pilot. Everything savory about the film would only seem more so with the idea of 13 hours to follow: the unexpectedly electric yet nicely underplayed chemistry between Allen and an invigorated Kevin Costner, whose relationship could move any number of ways from where Upside takes and leaves them; the smart casting of Allen's four daughters with actresses who mostly cut their teeth on TV, even if their ages suggest a mother who somehow experienced natural childbirth three times in a year; and the final reveal and closing scenes of the script, which do an ample job tying off Upside as a compressed experience while also setting up a rich, recalibrated premise from which to track this extended family into new adventures. If the movie has weaknesses, these might have been ameliorated by migrating it to a different, more open-ended platform. As it is, giving Alicia Witt, Erika Christensen, Keri Russell, and Evan Rachel Wood enough to do as the daughters entails hustling them through plotlines that might have benefited from slower accretion and more nuanced emotional beats, including Russell's health scare and Christensen's dalliance with an older man who seems unworthy of her in multiple registers. Wood's narration feels wispily justified. Patterns like the recurrent attention to Allen driving too fast for her neighbors' comfort come to very little, as though setting up some payoff we never get. Even the Costner character's uneasy relationship to his baseball-playing past seems underexploited.

In these respects, Upside can occasionally feel overstuffed or a bit gangly. Still, even those attributes don't fully rub me wrong. Plenty of romantic comedies—granting that this film bears unusual relations both to romance and to comedy—orbit so fixedly around one or two stars that everyone else feels subordinated or halfway-imagined, while the leads proceed through more or less compulsory beats. Upside avoids this, in part by refusing to settle definitively as a star vehicle, a two-hander, or an ensemble movie. Allen's slow-burning, booze-sipping, wearily truculent Terry Ann Wolfmeyer, abandoned by her husband just before the movie starts and nursing her injury in bitter, unflattering ways that feel totally plausible for her milieu and character profile, often stews by herself in isolated scenes. Just as often, though, she pursues her halting pas de deux with neighbor and quasi-business partner Denny Davies (Costner). Plenty of other scenes find her grappling with her daughters' early and error-prone adulthood. She is the mainstay of the film but not always its center. She's defined from multiple directions (and not always through other people), and all of her costars have been directed to project rounded personalities with lives extending before, after, and outside the movie. Nobody is here simply as a reflective device within Terry's characterization or as a sounding board for her zingers.

Even scenes that could easily have taken shape as big diva moments, such as Allen's deliciously awkward handling of a brunch with her daughter Hadley's prospective in-laws, have silverfish energies that keep scurrying out from under the spotlight performance. This sequence, for example, enriches our sense of Hadley rather than immobilizing her as a gawping witness to her off-the-hinge mom, and also clues us into how long these girls have been used to watching Terry drink too much, brittly if hilariously turning on allies or strangers. Awkwardly shaped as Upside occasionally is, individual scenes often have smart contours and rewarding layers, and I'll take the off-rhythms and restless boundaries of a movie like this over the familiar and streamlined superficiality of most movies in its peer group. We're not far from Terms of Endearment territory here, with Allen as a magnetic and exasperating Aurora, Costner as a remarkably ample Nicholson surrogate, and everyone in the movie teeming with comic, disorganized life—even if we are far from the moviegoing moment when a film like this could beat all comers at the box-office and kickstart a writer-director's career.

Visually, it's hard to make too aggressive a case for Upside but important, too, to remark its achievements. Occasionally a scene looks designed around a clear visual scheme, like the symmetrical framing and funereal underlighting of Terry Ann's first dinner with her brood post-abandonment. The effect of a moment like that isn't bad, and it exemplifies Upside's welcome habit of encompassing mulitple characters in medium or long-shot, rather than turning into a turbine of disconnected close-ups and reaction shots. Still, the approach looks a little over-deliberate and obviously conceived, as though its makers had too rigid a notion of what might look "cinematic." Shot by Richard Greatrex (Shakespeare in Love), at times over-brightly, Upside is on much surer footing with the kinds of deceptively casual feats that d.p.s rarely get credit for, like exploiting Allen's remarkable height better than most of her movies have done. Greatrex uses her stature to visually convey how Terry looks down on people, or how she takes up space in a room, or how she more than holds her own against suitors and louts despite her willowy build. Deborah Lynn Scott, the costume designer best known for the giant hats and brocaded gowns in Titanic, cuts the family's enormous house a little down to size, outfitting the characters to suggest ample but hardly extravagant resources. The girls still "dress up" in credibly mall-bought ways for first days at work; graduation gowns are bulky and oddly cut, as in life; and Terry's bottoming-out in front of the TV, seething with acrimonious energy even when she's silent, finds her in favorite nightgowns, once-natty cardigans, and aspirational-shopper workout clothes, not the Tragic Sweats that often turn characters into caricatures in scenes like these. Scott's costumes also help differentiate the daughters' personalities even when the screenplay doesn't leave itself room to dramatize them. And while we're surveying individual artists, soon-to-be-ubiquitous composer Alexandre Desplat contributes a score one might confuse with others he'd write later for less auteurist projects, but which proved the lush symphonics and conspicuous motifs of Girl with a Pearl Earring and Birth weren't his only métiers.

Those kinds of virtues often get overlooked in responses to movies like Upside, where critics tend to emphasize acting and writing. That said, it's hard to deny these are the arenas where the film is most prepossessing. Binder's dialogue often shows to advantage, especially because Allen gives a sterling seminar in that clichéd but 100% real virtue of acting the character's truth, which is plenty funny, rather than going for obvious laughs. "I wouldn't say a word against your father, because he's your father, but he's a miserable shit," Terry says (I'm paraphrasing), as her daughters cluster on the bed-cum-catafalque where Terry is riding out her angry depression.* Though many children of divorce will recognize both the sentiment and the bitter humor of it, Allen makes it funnier by showing us that the character believes what she's saying, not that the actress herself has sniffed out the comic hypocrisy. When the daughters' sympathy starts to waver, arraigning a perpetually soused Terry for intently broadcasting her wordless, paralytic anger from her outpost by the TV, Binder gives her some juicy lines about demanding the benefit of the doubt from everyone, every day, for as long as she needs it until she's figured out a next step. Allen goes bigger with this speech than she sometimes does, but she's not just turning up the volume. Her voice tells you Terry means business while inflections of her body and tone convey that she knows she's being grandiose and self-indulgent, and that falling apart is not impossible. The moment's marred a bit by some sitcommy schtick about a dog licking some food, but we see how Terry is a bracing, intimidating presence even when everyone knows she's pampering herself or making up excuses.

Nonetheless, Terry does honestly believe most of what she says, as in her very funny but genuine outrage at being the last to know her oldest daughter is getting married—a scene dexterously set up by a good script beat for Wood's character. And as extravagant or abrasvie as Terry can be, she's not without lucidity. There's a painful moment, again not overplayed, where she challenges Keri Russell's character for being so ready to forgive her father's faithless vanishing act while raking the parent who's still around over the coals. I'm glad Binder gives Allen more to do than be angry and outrageous. I loved her eager but totally skeptical, even self-critical responses to Costner's semi-clumsy flirtations, leading to humiliations like a misbegotten near-rendezvous that tells us a lot about both protagonists. That scene, like many, depends just as much on Costner's deft combo of devil-may-care masculinity and post-glory, late middle-aged self-pity. But beyond giving Allen more to play than righteous fury or zesty vituperation, Binder earns credit for finding so many notes within that range. In the best moments, as in Terry's violent confrontation with Binder's own character—that co-worker of Costner's who has zeroed in on one of Terry's daughters—we are solidly with this woman as she upbraids callow men for hypnotizing women too young and too good for them, but we're also frightened off by the reckless expression, verbal and otherwise, that she gives to these sentiments.

Terry seems unlikely to watch a lot of Joan Allen movies, and she doesn't strike me as the type who'd have made The Closer into appointment viewing. In 2005, I could imagine her downing martinis and glaring at that new Dancing with the Stars program with boozy derision, even as she's grateful for the distraction. Part of the kick of Upside, of course, is watching Allen burn away all the refinement and wifely devotion that threatened to typecast her after Nixon, The Crucible, The Ice Storm, and Pleasantville, excellent though she was in all of them. Despite her gilded reputation she thrives as someone with more or less unnutritious appetites in diet, drink, and distraction, including an iffy new love-match that still surprises us in some ways, in part by maybe or maybe not being a love-match. She stays in narcotized, quietly narcotized character during one of Binder's funniest and least-expected comic set-pieces involving an exploding head, but it's hard to avoid projecting onto Allen a spirit of gleeful release, playing a woman who sends brain matter flying around her living room rather than shunting so much energy into keeping up appearances. Oscar nuts might lament how deserving and overdue yet unnominated she was; Terry certainly thinks of herself as deserving and overdue for rewards, only to find herself dropped from a roster where she felt secure. But Allen just does her job, gloriously, showing us new sides of what she can do and what contexts she can suit. Even one or two years later, I bet some studio exec would have proposed overhauling Upside for TV, and Binder, in my imaginary scenario, might have seized this as an opportunity rather than perceiving it as a bump down to minor leagues. I lament the future episodes of the Wolfmeyer narrative we never got to watch. At the same time, I'm glad that popular cinema still find some room, any room, even unjustly-overlooked room, for characters, energies, and artistries like those in this movie. Grade: B

P.S.: My brother, who's been on me before about punctilious accuracy, reports that the actual quote is, "He's a pig, your dad. A vile, selfish, horrible pig. But you know what? I'm not gonna trash him to you girls. I'm not." Which is, of course, even better.

National Board of Review: Special Mention for Excellence in Filmmaking

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