MOVIES: The Upside of Anger
I'd heard nothing but good about The Upside of Anger, but I was still reluctant to see it due to my irrational dislike of writer/director Mike Binder. Irrational because I didn't really know Binder; I was familiar with him mainly through the towering hatred harbored for him by Television Without Pity, him and his HBO sitcom, Mind of the Married Man. The recaps of that show (which I've never actually seen; I didn't have HBO when it was on) were wall-to-wall diatribes of hatred for the show, and for Binder as an actor, writer, and a human being. TWoP actually stopped recapping the show in the middle of the first season because they hated it so much.
That's how I knew Mike Binder. So I came into The Upside of Anger with a negative attitude. "This guy sucks," I thought. "I mean, I don't know that he does, personally, but some people I've never met who run a website whose sole purpose is to be negative about television say that he sucks." Well, I still don't know about Mind of the Married Man, but The Upside of Anger is frickin' great. So much for TWoP.
Of course, it doesn't hurt that Anger is headed by Joan Allen and Kevin Costner, who are both amazing. Especially Allen: she's the lead, and her performance is dazzling. She's angry and resentful, hurt and vulnerable, vindictive and vengeful, funny and loving; she really gets to stretch her acting legs and show off how truly brilliant she can be. It's a great role and a great performance. Costner also gives his best performance since... well, since Open Range, which wasn't all that long ago, I guess, but not counting that one, since, like, Tin Cup. How long ago was that one? Ah, whatever: he's very good here, in a role that's a little too perfectly tailored for Costner (a washed-up baseball player turned drunk); Costner uses the history of his previous baseball films (Bull Durham, Field of Dreams, For Love of the Game) to give this character that extra little kick of poignancy and believability. He's very funny as a man overwhelmed by this woman and her daughters, but gamely hanging in for the long run.
And Allen's daughters are played by a tremendously talented crew of young actresses -- Alicia Witt (who I've had on crush on since Cybill), Keri Russell (boy, she hasn't done much since Felicity, but she's great here), Erika Christensen (from Traffic), and Evan Rachel Wood (from Thirteen). They all get real characters here, and they all get their moments to shine. It's truly impressive that Binder managed to write not just one, but five great roles for women in this picture.
Binder also writes a meaty role for himself, as the sleazeball producer of Costner's radio show; he's contemptible, played mostly for comic relief, but he also shows brief moments of humanity, especially in his clashes with Allen, where you wonder if maybe he's not in the right after all.
The story begins with Allen finding out her husband has just left her. We learn that she used to be the sweetest person in the world, but her husband's betrayal has left her a bitter, hard-drinking shell of herself, only rousing herself enough to lash out at those around her. Costner is her neighbor, and her husband's former best friend, who is more than willing to support her by matching her drink for drink. Their relationship is fascinating, funny and volatile and fragile; it proceeds in ways that aren't immediately familiar from a hundred other movies. For example, when Allen calls up Costner at a low point, and tells him that she's coming over to offer him sex, he panics and runs and hides behind the shed in the backyard. It's so irrational and ridiculous, but at the same time so real and believable for these characters.
This film is a real gem, probably overlooked by far too many people. It's charming and winning and tough and original, and if Allen doesn't get an Oscar nomination, I'll eat my hat.