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With: Joan Allen, Kevin Costner, Erika Christensen, Alicia Witt, Keri Russell, Evan Rachel Wood, Mike Binder, Tom Harper, Dane Christensen, Danny Webb, Magdalena Manville, Suzanne Bertish
Written by: Mike Binder
Directed by: Mike Binder
MPAA Rating: R for language, sexual situations, brief comic violence and some drug use
Running Time: 118
Date: 01/23/2005

The Upside of Anger (2005)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Humor, Humanity Are 'The Upside of Anger'

By Rob Blackwelder, SPLICEDwire

Here's hoping Oscar voters have a long memory for next year's Academy Awards, because if The Upside of Anger had been released three months ago, Joan Allen would have given Hilary Swank a run for her gold.

Allen gives a tour de force performance of emotional wreckage tinged with gloomy humor as a middle-aged, well-to-do suburban mother of four girls who becomes a bitter drunk who rarely changes out of her dressing gown after her husband of 25 years abandons the family -- just disappearing from their lives without a trace.

Her daughters -- meek dancer Keri Russell, independent college graduate Alicia Witt, rebellious high-school grad Erika Christensen and apprehensive teenager Evan Rachel Wood -- walk on egg shells for fear of setting her off on a tirade, and are all at lose ends without their mother's strength and support. But her fearlessly forward neighbor Denny (Kevin Costner) -- a washed-up, washed-out former major-league baseball star who makes a living off his remaining celebrity -- sees in Allen's pain a chance to gain a drinking buddy. Oddly enough, their afternoons of beer (his) and vodka (hers) soon kindle a little hope and sobriety in both their lives -- and a little casual sex.

"Have a drink," she tells Denny on the phone as she drives over to his house on a hormonal whim. "Have a couple. I don't want you to have a very clear memory of this when it's over."

Allen mixes rage and wry irony in a performance that, like a roller coaster, is at once scary and entertaining -- and she is spectacular from Scene One, a flash-forward that finds her riding in the back of a funeral limo, full of silent, sour sorrow. In this same moment, Wood provides a voice-over that sets the stage with a perfect pitch of teenage anxiety and a daughter's concern: "She was the nicest person anyone who knew her ever knew. But then things changed. She got angry."

Actor turned writer-director Mike Binder -- who also plays an comically piggish, 40-something, biker-mustached stoner that 18-year-old Christiansen beds as a way of acting out -- creates in his script a complex, familiar and deeply human dynamic between his characters, and provides each actor rich layers of feeling and humor to breathe into them. These people take awkward chances and affectionate pot shots, and they put their feet in their mouths in uncomfortable moments of heightened emotion, all with smart, sharp but entirely natural dialogue.

Everything about them feels real, which helps atone for some unrealistic plot minutia, such as the fact that Russell is too old to be just entering a career as a ballerina or that Christiansen lands a job as a radio producer with no experience and no college degree. The funeral at the beginning burdens the film with distracting speculation about who was in the coffin, and a twist toward the end comes with its own entirely new set of plot holes that go unaddressed -- as do the emotions this twist should stir up but doesn't.

Yet none of these shortcomings derails the deeply affecting and surprisingly amusing story, or the uncommonly multifaceted knockout performances, or Binder's penchant for creative storytelling. (A multi-exposure montage sequence of Allen trashing her husband's closet is understated but inspired.)

True-to-life in both its broken psyches and its often-dark humor, The Upside of Anger is what synthetic dramedies like the recent Spanglish and In Good Company only wish they could be.

DVD Details: New Line's 2005 DVD comes with deleted scenes, a making-of featurette and a commentary track with Joan Allen and director/co-star Mike Binder.

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