The Upside of Anger

Joan Allen has been nominated for, but has never won, three Oscars: Best Actress for “The Contender,” and Best Supporting Actress for “Nixon” and “The Crucible.” She was not nominated for “Pleasantville,” but surely she was worthy. And this year, we’ve already seen her show her range as a nudist hippie in “Off the Map.” She is, as they say the Real Deal.

But it is clips of “The Upside of Anger” that I hope will be shown at next year’s Academy Awards ceremony, and while it’s too early in 2005 to be calling for a deserving winner, there’s no question Allen ought to be nominated. For if five actresses deliver performances in the next nine months that are MORE fine-tuned, more engaging, more emotionally effective than Allen’s in “The Upside of Anger,” then I will be astonished.

Allen plays Terry Wolfmeyer, an upper-class housewife in suburban Detroit for whom the term “housewife” seems inadequate. It’s true she doesn’t work outside the home, but she has the demeanor of a high-powered executive or a corporate lawyer. With her patrician face, withering stare, and ever-present glass of liquor, she is the very picture of bourgeois anger. She could kill a person with just her eyes — and in one brief, hysterical fantasy scene, she does just that.

But she wasn’t always like this. We’re told, but not shown, that she was once radiantly happy, liked by everyone and adored by her family. Then, at the film’s outset, her husband of 20-some years abruptly leaves her, apparently gone to Sweden with his secretary. Terry becomes depressed, alcoholic and bitter, her sardonicism knowing no bounds and her anger at the world unable to be contained. She has four daughters — college student Hadley (Alicia Witt), ballet dancer Emily (Keri Russell), and high school students Andy (Erika Christensen) and Popeye (Evan Rachel Wood) — or, as Terry puts it, “one that hates me and two or three that are leaning that way.” (Hadley is the confirmed hater, for the record, probably because she is the furthest on her way to becoming just like her.)

Into this home of despair and frustration comes Denny Davies (Kevin Costner), a former Major League Baseball player who now hosts a radio talk show where he refuses to discuss baseball. When he gets drunk, which is often, he’ll autograph baseballs in the hopes that kids will sell them on eBay and keep his celebrity cachet alive. He is as gregarious and affable as Terry is angry. (He also represents what is probably Costner’s best performance in at least a decade — funny, soulful, unshaven and very entertainingly disheveled.)

Denny was a friend of Mr. Wolfmeyer’s and is as surprised as Terry and the kids are by his departure. He begins to casually ingratiate himself into the family, notably by becoming Terry’s drinking buddy — rest assured, the comedy of alcoholism is thoroughly explored in this film — and by being a pal to the girls. Still, he’s in over his head. You don’t need tact and caution to enter this household; you need a hard hat.

Denny gets Andy a job as a production assistant on his radio show, much to the delight of his leering producer Shep (Mike Binder, also the film’s writer/director), who favors younger women and who, as expected, begins a physical relationship with Andy post-haste. Denny also goes with Popeye and her would-be boyfriend Gordon (Dane Christensen) on a bungee-jumping excursion, though Gordon’s dad is the only one who actually goes through with it. When Emily forsakes college to be a dancer, and when Hadley becomes pregnant and married in the wrong order, it is Denny who tries to soothe and reason with the furious, unreasonable Terry.

Mike Binder’s nicely assembled comedy/drama falls prey to the temptations faced by many relatively new filmmakers, including the Unnecessary Narrator (i.e., one who speaks at the very beginning and the very end and nowhere in between), and the Rainy-Day Graveside Funeral Where Everyone Has Black Umbrellas (they do make them in other colors, you know, and a lot of times cemeteries are sunny).

The funeral itself is a bit of a gimmick, too. We don’t know who is dead (only that it is not Terry, Denny or Popeye), and it is shown at the beginning of the film, before we jump back in time three years to the movie’s REAL start — which means for the next hour and a half, we’re watching for someone to die. Binder makes sure to include several scenes where death is a possibility, too, a complete non-necessity, since the movie is quite engrossing already without such tricks, thank you very much.

But I am more impressed by the clichés he avoids. It would be easy to manufacture a reason for Terry to disapprove of Hadley’s fiancé, for example, or for one of the girls to be wanton and rebellious (I would nominate Popeye for that, since it is Evan Rachel Wood’s specialty), or for Terry’s struggle with alcoholism to become maudlin and melodramatic. But instead these things are handled smartly, Terry remaining believable in every instance, never going over the edge into soap-opera territory. Her anger at her husband’s rejection takes many forms, and Allen plays them all gracefully, perfectly.

The end of the film is a bit of a problem, in part because it is a starkly serious contrast to what has generally been a funny movie (albeit one with dark undertones), and in part because I’m not sure it’s plausible. That said, it helps the movie’s overarching themes, the idea that anger can be transformative, that it may be misplaced but ultimately useful — and that in the meantime, it seldom accomplishes anything good. This is a sharply funny, piercing examination of righteous indignation.

B+ (1 hr., 58 min.; R, some harsh profanity, a little sexuality, brief exaggerated violence.)