*The Upside of Anger (R)
The Upside of Anger, a Gothic comedy set in suburban Detroit, provides sweet and sour pleasures. It's that rare kind of slice-of-life film that will appeal to most of the family.
The film revolves around Terry Wolfmeyer, played by Joan Allen, a wealthy mother of four daughters whose life begins to disintegrate when her husband disappears. Terry takes refuge in endless rounds of vodka tonics as her anger simmers, while her daughters watch in smirking disbelief.
Joining Terry in the daylong happy hour is Denny Davies (Kevin Costner), a washed-up baseball star who is barely hanging on as a local radio DJ.
The ensemble of actors is perfectly cast. Allen, one year shy of 50, portrays the very sexy mom of a household filled with Botticelli-faced beauties. Alicia Witt, Keri Russell, Erika Christensen and Evan Rachel Wood play the four luscious daughters.
Into this den of damsels steps Costner, who just turned 50 himself and whose very name may inspire groans from film-goers. But here he's perfect, a beer-bellied former jock who kills time smoking weed and drinking six packs. Watching him play a has-been is such a pleasure -- likely because it confirms a truth about Costner's career: It used to be thrilling to watch him play Captain America in movies like The Untouchables and JFK, but after too many years of movies like Waterworld and The Postman, he turned into a buffoon.
Casting Costner as a character who was cool when Spuds McKenzie (the dog) was drinking beer adds the perfect touch. And as the only character in the film who doesn't always take himself seriously, he's infectious in providing the humor this film needs.
Denny initially seems to be a mere horndog, hanging around a desperate woman's house hoping to get lucky. But as the film progresses, it becomes clear that he's more interested in life and love than sex.
Cast as a foil to Denny is the film's director, Mike Binder, who plays Shep, Denny's radio producer. It's Shep who turns out to be the middle-age horndog, picking up scores of women half his age -- including one of Terry's daughters.
While Binder pulls off a convincing sleazebag, too jaded to date women his own age, his real triumph is in the director's chair. He marks the passage of three years with well-executed seasonal markers: falling snow, pouring rain and blinding sunlight. His cameras excellently frame the feminine faces, giving the viewer what must be Denny's perspective: the portrait of a troubled but beautiful and lively family that he desperately wants to join.
Fans of American Beauty will find a lot to like with this movie, including one ridiculous scene of magical realism. But Upside is far more realistic and, at times, more satisfying than Beauty.
This is not, however, a perfect film. Some scenes induce bursts of laughter from the audience, but in too many others we find the characters doing the same for no apparent reason. The result is more spooky than contagious. And while the film does a passable job portraying the stresses of single parenthood, it completely fails to show the grinding sorrow of alcoholism. Despite the hundreds of vodka tonics and beers consumed on screen, we never see a shivering, vomiting Allen.
Perhaps that makes sense. Despite Upside's dark tones, it's a surprisingly happy film. And, as sappy as it might be to say this about a slice-of-life drama, it contains a lot of instantly recognizable truth.
-- Dan Wilcock