Let’s get the griping out of the way first, shall we? Writer/director Mike Binder structures The Upside of Anger as a flashback, in this case a gratuitous and leaden device which adds absolutely nothing to his film. His second misjudgment is to use voiceovers both at the beginning and at the end, a totally unnecessary distraction from the story he has to tell. His most grievous mistake is to have the voiceover recite the moral of the tale at the end of the film, as if he lacked confidence that he successfully had made his points within the body of the film or, worse, he’s not willing to trust the intelligence of his audience to have figured it out for themselves.
That said, rest assured that in between the unfortunate bookends Binder delivers a fresh, funny, pointed comedy. It’s a breakthrough for a director who has a string of humdrum movies on his previous record.
The setting is that favorite location of American filmmakers, upper-middle class suburbia, in this case, outside of Detroit. Terry Wolfmeyer (Joan Allen) is the one who’s angry. Although the other characters get their moments of anger, too, Terry is thoroughly, profoundly, boiling-over-with-rage angry since her husband disappeared–ran off with his Swedish secretary, she thinks. So she maintains a condition of being perpetually pickled, drinking all day long (and smoking endlessly) as the television reports on largely ignored news of terrorists and the situation in Pakistan.
Terry directs her anger at the people around her. Her neighbor, Denny Davies (Kevin Costner), a once famous baseball player living off of his past glory, sympathizes with her, drinks with her, desires her, and also wants something more in the way of an emotional connection.
Terry’s four beautiful daughters present convenient targets for verbal attacks; Terry’s prevailing anger combined with caustic wit elevate rather standard family conflicts into the stuff of high comedy. Popeye (Evan Rachel Wood) is the youngest–she gets to deliver the voiceover. Emily (Keri Russell) is an aspiring ballerina who Mom actively discourages, preferring more conventional education and career goals. Hadley (Alicia Witt) triggers the meet-the-incipient-in-laws lunch that is one of the funniest scenes in the movie. And Andy (Erika Christensen) gets involved in an affair with a scruffy radio producer (played by Binder) twice her age. "That’s the problem with being a deviate," he complains, "Everyone thinks you’re one-dimensional." None of the girls gets sufficient exposure for serious character development; they’re there to serve as satellites to Terry’s story.
Costner is in unexpectedly good form, mixing middle-aged sexiness with gently expressed emotional neediness, but he, too, is secondary to Terry. Joan Allen (The Bourne Supremacy, The Contender) is front and center throughout, never once hitting a wrong note as she vents her rage with conviction and delivers the often smart and witty dialogue with perfect timing. Always a reliable pro, this performance should propel Allen out of the supporting roles that have been her lot and into major stardom.