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ISSUE 118 VOL 15 PUBLISHED 4/8/2005

'Anger' has an upside

By Stephanie Soucheray
Variety Editor

Friday, April 8, 2005

In the black comedy “The Upside of Anger,” Joan Allen plays Terry Wolfmeyer, a suburban woman scorned when she believes her husband has left her and her four daughters for his Swedish secretary.

In the film’s opening scene, viewers see a close up of Allen’s face at a funeral, brow furrowed and lips pursed. Her youngest daughter, Popeye (Evan Rachel Wood), explains to the audience in a voiceover that her mother didn’t used to be angry. In fact, says Popeye, she was once a sweet woman who allowed her husband’s abandonment to turn her into a boozy, callous and often hilarious pessimist. The film – like the documentary Popeye is making for her high school media class – tries to explore the evolution of anger, along with how it can grow, destroy and permanently alter people.

Joan Allen is a stellar and seasoned actress, unfortunately overlooked in solid but supportive roles in films like “Nixon,” “The Ice Storm” and, most recently, “The Notebook.” Allen’s comedic timing is perfect in “The Upside of Anger.” Though she is a polished and attractive suburban mom, her penchant for gin and tonics and her salty humor (after a disastrous meeting with her eldest daughter’s fiance’s family, she comments: “I was like a public service announcement against drinking”) makes her character spirited and dimensional, rather than pathetic and typical.

Playing Allen’s also-drunk, stoned, ex-baseball-player neighbor and love interest is a pudgy, aged Kevin Costner. No longer examining his fins (“Waterworld”) or dancing with wolves, Costner is expertly cast as Denny Davies, a radio disc jockey who refuses to talk about his baseball past. Costner displays a warm yet bruised affection for Allen. Their relationship evolves from drinking buddies to lovers, and the weathered truth and acceptance of one another’s flaws is truly human.

The plot follows three years in Terry’s post-marriage existence. Her daughters, Hadley (Alicia Witt), Andy (Erika Christensen), Emily (Keri Russell) and Popeye, each experience tumult as they react to their mother’s newfound anger. Hadley, who surprises her mother with a shotgun wedding, has the most strained relationship with her mother. Andy is the rebellious, college-denouncing second child who angers her mother when she sleeps with a sleazy older man but never seems to fall far from her mother’s grace. Emily, played by “Felicity” star Russell, is the most shallow and obnoxious character in the film. Russell’s portrayal of a sickly ballerina who is too sensitive for her mother’s criticism is tired and lifeless. The brightest actress in the bunch is Wood, whose character has the potential to be the annoying wise-beyond-her-years teen; instead, Wood infuses her role with the depth that marked her standout performance in 2003’s “Thirteen.”

The film’s ending will probably make some viewers angry. It comes as a surprise, and though it may seem that writer and director Mike Binder contrived his dark comedy with a too-dramatic plot twist, audiences should be thankful that, unlike many recent films, they didn’t see it coming from a mile away.

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