U.S. Release Date: March 11, 2005
Distributor: New Line
Director: Mike Binder
Writer: Mike Binder
Composer: Alexandre Desplat
Cast: Kevin Costner, Joan Allen, Erika Christensen, Evan Rachel Wood, Evan Rachel Wood, Keri Russell, Alicia Witt, Mike Binder
Running Time: 1 hour and 58 minutes
MPAA Rating: R (language, sexual situations, brief comic violence and some drug use)

Kevin Costner Shines Brightly Beside Joan Allen in Light Family Fable
by Scott Holleran

For a small, comedic movie, writer and director Mike Binder's The Upside of Anger spins a big, cathartic yarn about divorce, family and the simple drama of life. It's droll and dramatic and Binder, who stars in his own picture as a lecherous everyman, proves you can laugh without being snide. His steady, dry take on an emotion's role in human action is the sort of gem Hollywood used to produce with ease.

Not anymore, which is what makes this movie so refreshing, like escaping a family reunion with a chain-smoking aunt who's the only one to acknowledge family secrets. In The Upside of Anger, a classic star vehicle starring Joan Allen, the secrets include alcoholism, repression and depression, wrapped in a neat, pink bow of femininity, like a gift for anyone who has survived divorce—parents and children—or dysfunctional parenting.

Nestled in the suburbs, nursing her bottles of booze, we meet glaring Miss Allen as a housewife who has paid her dues, raised her children and is taking a well-deserved break to feel sorry for herself after figuring out that her husband has run off with the secretary. Looking like ten miles of bad road, she's about to let bitterness into her soul, but she's also aware of her own culpability and she hasn't called it quits yet. On a certain level, Binder's picture is about whether or not she will.

With Daddy having fled, the four daughters of the impending divorce apocalypse face their fates with neither father—who has vanished—nor mother, who's tending to herself for a change. A moody melody and crisp photography convey the feeling of loss, drift and alienation one associates with family disunity. Whatever's left to connect the survivors is fractured.

And it is funny, though it is the type of laughter that comes from acknowledging, not denigrating, the facts of life. What's not funny about having the first born child (Alicia Witt) kick you while you're down as a way of dealing with her own issues? Or eager Erika Christensen wanting to skip college, get to work and get ahead—possibly by any means necessary (with Binder cashing in as the male flipside to Roz on Frasier). Or Keri Russell as the good girl, a ballerina yearning for mother's approval, dancing as fast as she can. Or the youngest child (Evan Rachel Wood), the voice of the family, whose conversation with herself—no one listens to the youngest—provides the real upside to this lesson in living.

Slender, tanned Miss Allen shuffles around like a lush, bitching about this and that, pouring another drink and lashing out. Keen to join her is neighbor Kevin Costner (an outstanding, layered performance), an ex-professional athlete who punches the clock as a sports radio disc jockey and flops around the female household with a can of Budweiser embedded in his palm. They're about two cocktails from depravity, but something about them is not totally lost.

The Upside of Anger begins with a psychological puzzle, as Miss Allen and Costner are glimpsed in present day heading toward some sort of event. The rest of the movie offers clues, with several breathtaking moments—a daughter's danger, a boy's desire to prove his manhood, driving a car around the block—that remind us that life is, if not always fragile, not automatic. In its own way, and it is rare to be able to say this, The Upside of Anger dramatizes why it is good to be alive—even if mother's on a drinking binge.

Besides the inimitable Joan Allen, whose detached manner makes her more interesting, the bolt of lightning here is Kevin Costner, who portrays the paunchy ex-ballplayer with honesty, comedy and sex appeal. In these times, it seems radical even to consider the role of emotions in human affairs, much less to suppose there is an upside to anger. With humor and insight, Mike Binder gives us something to laugh—as well as think—about and it feels good to have seen it.

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DVD Notes
Beside the poignant movie, the extras are a tad disappointing, offering bits and pieces and assuming inside knowledge instead of properly introducing and highlighting the movie's principals, impetus and development. Audio commentary by writer, director and actor Mike Binder and Miss Allen is moderated by Rod Lurie, who directed both in The Contender, and occasionally his guidance is thought-provoking, though the commentary strays to the usual backslapping and name-dropping. Eight deleted scenes deserve to be cut, though three interesting dream scenes involving Miss Allen's character underscore Binder's commitment to keep his story intact. An uneven 27-minute feature alternately feels influenced by favors and nets cast and crew insights about a motion picture worth watching again, with deeper appreciation for Binder's direction, Richard Greatrex's photography and Alexandre Desplat's music.

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