Title: The Upside of Anger
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Director: Mike Binder
Screenwriters: Mike Binder
Starring: Joan Allen, Kevin Costner, Erika Christensen
Mike Binder’s The Upside of Anger reminded me in some ways of Imaginary Heroes, another quirky 2005 drama about a family dealing with grief over the loss of a loved one. But while that film destroyed a solid core with a contrived story and silly character work, Binder’s film is intriguing for most of the way, only to be undermined by a late revelation that confuses its thesis beyond repair. There is a lot to admire here, but the movie falls apart just when it needed to come together.
The poster doesn’t mince words about the film’s message, proclaiming that “the upside of anger is the person you can become.” Binder does indeed attempt to speak to that, but, unfortunately, trips over his feet with a twist ending that effectively negates the very idea. The thrust of the movie is the protagonist’s indignation and how it supposedly transforms her into a bitter old maid, and the ostensible punchline is that she was able to emerge from that experience a better person — wiser, stronger, more experienced. She overcomes her deep resentment, learns from it, grows beyond it.
Fine, but that idea assumes that the journey of anger is a real one, stemming from real hurt, and that overcoming it is a profound challenge. The Upside of Anger inexplicably winds up nixing this element. The final revelation, which I dare not reveal, turns Terry’s pain and anger into a mistake, an unfortunate mishap that caused everyone involved a lot of pain, but is easily dismissed when recognized — or, at least, transformed into an entirely different kind of pain. I am being impossibly obscure in an effort to protect the plot, but suffice it to say that the movie gives Terry a free pass and pretends that she accomplished something. Overcoming one’s anger isn’t very difficult when it is false to begin with.
That is what’s ultimately responsible for the movie’s near-fatal lack of cohesion. What precedes it is skillful, sometimes affecting, and almost invariably worthwhile. Joan Allen accomplishes the impressive feat of undergoing a convincing transformation without our witnessing her original state — we are told that Terry used to be a sweet, kind, approachable woman, and Allen makes us believe it while portraying only her angry, volatile, impulsive, drunk state. Even as we see her behave horribly toward her four daughters, and the well-meaning ex-baseball star who tries to fill the void in her life (Kevin Costner), we can sense the loving, caring mother and wife she has just barely left behind.
I like the way the movie juggles the stories of the four girls — it’s episodic, and perhaps a bit like a 7th Heaven episode in its pat depiction of four isolated, dramatic conflicts, but in the context of how they affect the main character, they serve their purpose nicely. Emily’s quest to pursue dance full-time is particularly effective in the way it morphs Terry’s healthy concern about her daughter’s risky career choice into something just a touch too intense and aggressive. Anger will do that, apparently.
I liked a lot of things about The Upside of Anger, in fact — I was even impressed with Kevin Costner’s uncharacteristically loose-limbed performance as the ex-athlete on the verge of becoming a terminal scumbag. Binder, who also casts himself in an ostentatious supporting role, injects comic relief without pandering, and seems to have a nice sense of his characters as actual human beings. But I think I was enjoying the film with the assumption that it was leading somewhere meaningful, because I wound up walking out feeling empty and unfulfilled. The Upside of Anger cuts itself down brutally.