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Suburban agony, bourgeois melodrama


Film distributors often fill the odd intermezzo between the late-year Oscar shoehorning and the explosive appearance of those sure harbingers of warm weather, the blockbuster action flicks, with some small, sometimes unclassifiable pictures.

The late winter dumping time may explain the considerable quantity of favorable publicity surrounding Mike Binder's new picture, The Upside of Anger. Its subject, the sort of suburban domestic agony that traditionally dominated the fiction pages of The New Yorker, with all those stories by John Cheever and John Updike, apparently still fascinates a number of journalists, which may also explain the remarkable critical success in recent years of such films as Ordinary People, Terms of Endearment, and American Beauty.

The movie focuses on a not untypical marital crisis, the plight of an abandoned wife, in this case a woman whose husband has suddenly and inexplicably taken off and left her with four daughters and an enormous burden of loneliness, desperation, and hostility. The picture begins and ends with a funeral --- the same funeral --- with a young girl's voiceover narration helpfully advising us that anger can sometimes produce beneficial results, then jumps gracelessly to a line of prose dating the action three years earlier.

The story the voice recounts reopens with the situation of Terry Wolfmeyer (Joan Allen), who must somehow come to terms with her husband's completely unexpected and unexplained departure and deal with the problem of raising her four daughters, the oldest in college, the youngest in high school, alone.

Unlike most women in her situation, Terry suffers no apparent financial problems; the movie concentrates instead on other sorts of difficulties. She and her daughters, who attend private schools, live in a posh suburb of Detroit, drive nice cars, and seem to lack for little in the way of creature comforts and material goods. The real subject of the film involves the anger of the title, which not only translates as Terry's understandable rage toward her husband, but also as the cruel, incessant tension between mother and daughters that the rage creates.

For much of the movie Terry spends her days drifting around the house in her nightgown, mindlessly watching television, and slurping up vodka by the gallon. A goofy neighbor, Denny Davies (Kevin Costner), a retired baseball player and talk show host, who initially visits her to ask her husband about buying some of his property, becomes something like a drinking buddy, practically a daily presence in her house and her family's life, and after a suitable time, her lover. Despite a number of obstacles and mistakes, his relationship with her and her smart, sophisticated daughters ultimately works positive results in all their lives, presumably one of the upsides of anger.

Because the movie must handle the problems of a handful of people, it tends to diffuse its focus by dealing with a number of different relationships --- Terry's with each of her daughters, Denny's with Terry, and the various daughters' connections to other people. The oldest daughter announces at her college graduation that she is pregnant and about to marry her boyfriend; another devotes herself so deeply to ballet and feels such anger at her mother that she suffers a stomach ulcer; another decides to take a job Denny wangles for her at his radio station and winds up in bed with his producer (Mike Binder); the youngest falls for a classmate who turns out to be gay, and so on.

With so much going on among its characters, the movie tends to dissipate its energy and slacken its tension, so that the initial emotional distress flattens out into mild annoyance and even softens into laughs and gags. (The writer-director began his career as a comedian, after all). Kevin Costner, who has finally hung up his spikes after Field of Dreams, Bull Durham, and For Love of the Game, approaches the part of the former ballplayer with a relaxed ease that serves him well in the lighter moments but seems inadequate to the more heavily emotional occasions.

Finally receiving the recognition she deserves, Joan Allen behaves in an exemplary manner in her central role, combining a kind of antiseptic sexiness with a convincingly scary anger --- at one point she fixes Mike Binder with a basilisk stare that unmans him more thoroughly than the sock she delivers a few minutes later.

The picture's final scenes clarify the meaning of the funeral that bookends the action, once again demonstrating some of the point of the title. At the same time, the utterly preposterous premise that establishes all the action, character, and emotion, and makes that clarification possible represents both a retreat from meaning and a baldly ridiculous conclusion, destroying all the verisimilitude the director obviously intends. Ultimately, beyond its exploration of an engaging and emotionally fraught situation, The Upside of Anger makes very little sense.

The Upside of Anger (R), starring Joan Allen, Kevin Costner, Erika Christensen, Evan Rachel Wood, Keri Russell, Alicia Witt, Mike Binder, Tom Harper; written and directed by Mike Binder. Cinemark Tinseltown, Regal Culver Ridge, Regal Eastview, Regal Henrietta