Vulnerability Made Pat

Joan Allen, Kevin Costner’s mutual refuge bogged down in family dysfunction overkill

Joan Allen is such a great actress that when she gets the rare chance to carry a film, one wishes it would be better than “The Upside of Anger.”

It is easy to see why Allen was attracted to the role of Terry Wolfmeyer, a desperate housewife whose husband suddenly abandons her and their four daughters. It is a plum part and she makes the most of it—but writer/director Mike Binder has made a very ham-fisted film about the struggles of a vulnerable middle-aged woman.

The story opens at the funeral of an unidentified body, and flashes back three years earlier when Terry first learns of her husband running off with his secretary to Sweden. The youngest Wolfmeyer daughter Popeye (Evan Rachel Wood) provides a voice-over narration that claims “mom was nice and sweet” (before dad left the family) but there is no evidence of that in the film. Terry feels entitled to drink and be bitchy because her husband left her, and her bad behavior is meant to be alternatively scary and amusing.

There is no clear explanation why Wood’s character is called Popeye, or why the family dog, which appears in an early comic scene, is never seen again. These questions may nag viewers, but there are more mysteries to ponder as the sudsy story unspools.

Terry drinks to dull the pain of being abandoned, Grey Goose being her placed-product choice of libation. She tentatively befriends Denny (Kevin Costner), an alcoholic ex-baseball player who lives in the neighborhood and hosts a local radio talk show. An easygoing friendship forms between these two lost drinking buddies, and the film is at its best when the icy Allen and the comfortably numb Costner—who have great chemistry together—play off each other. When he spies on her in the shower, or chats with her on the phone, the couple’s flirtations are lively, and a scene in which they stop traffic to discuss sleeping together is a highlight.

Yet Binder chooses to attempt more than a simple exploration of Terry licking her wounds with a washed up ballplayer. “The Upside of Anger” overstuffs the plot with sob stories for each daughter that test Terry’s patience, and most likely the viewer’s as well. From ballet dancer Emily (Keri Russell) seeking mom’s approval—and suffering from an eating disorder to boot—to Andy (Erika Christensen) having an affair with Denny’s sleazy, much older producer, Shep (Binder), Terry’s life is full of disappointments. Things do not improve when Hadley (Alicia Witt) announces her engagement to her college sweetheart. The resulting “meet the parents” luncheon is one of the more embarrassing episodes in the film as Binder cannot quite balance the sarcasm and awkwardness to make the scene register properly.

Even though Terry gets many opportunities in which to unleash her anger at her daughters and their poor choices—and Allen seems to relish these moments—few of them are truly satisfying. Popeye has a potential boyfriend who claims to be gay, though the issue of if he is queer or not is never really resolved. When he destroys a room in the house, Terry seems too tired of raising her voice and rolling her eyes in disbelief to care.

“The Upside of Anger” is the second dysfunctional family film this year—the other being “Imaginary Heroes”—to waste a good cast by creating too many plots and characters, and not having a writer/director competent enough to juggle all the complicated emotions and storylines. Binder turns all his female characters into victims, a choice not only misogynistic, but also disingenuous. The men in the film are every bit as insecure as the women, but never, it seems, at fault. Shep’s elaborate rationalization for his relationship with Andy is simply reprehensible.

When the identity of the corpse whose funeral opens the film is finally revealed, it is less a shock than a harbinger of relief that “The Upside of Anger” will soon be over.

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