“My mother was always the nicest person I ever knew,” says 15-year-old Popeye (Evan Rachel Wood). “And then things changed. She got angry… Anger has turned my mother into a very sad and bitter woman. If she weren’t my mother, I’d slap her.” Popeye’s voiceover introduces Terry (Joan Allen) sits before a coffin, during a standard movie-opening funeral, complete with rain, black umbrellas, and a crowd of extras you’ll never see again. Seated across the coffin from Terry are her four daughters—Popeye, Andy (Erika Christensen), Emily (Keri Russell), and Hadley (Alicia Witt)—all wearing classy black and looking suitably sad.
So begins The Upside of Anger, written and directed by Mike (Mind of a Married Man) Binder. Lurching into the simultaneously delicate and banal business of Terry’s anger, not to mention her daughters’ understandable bewilderment, the movie offers little in the way of complexity or sense. Rather, it offers smug observation posing as insight and judgment posing as sympathy. Terry never works out or even comes to understand her anger. Instead, she uses it as a blunt instrument, terrorizing her wispily inconsequential daughters and drinking vodka just about nonstop.
Denny is another story. The fact that he’s Terry’s neighbor in suburban Detroit makes him convenient, especially since her anger is prompted by the disappearance of her husband, whom she surmises has run off to Sweden with his younger secretary. The fact that he’s an ex-major league ballplayer, with a World Series ring, a reputation as a womanizer, a serious penchant for booze, and a current gig as a lackadaisical talk radio host makes him a “quirky” hero. And the fact that he’s played by Kevin Costner makes him a cousin to Crash Davis, still the actor’s best performance—a disillusioned, but still hopeful against odds sort of cousin, unsaved by Susan Sarandon.
Here it is Denny’s mission to rescue Terry, or more accurately, to tolerate her rage and meanness, and to support her into change, to model generosity and compassion for her. This even as he’s drunk for much of the film, autographing baseballs and Louisville Sluggers to make an easy buck, and seeking his own solace and sense of self-worth in a ready-made family of beautiful, needy girls. He takes his mission seriously, though, and pursues the reluctant Terry just hard enough to earn her grudging affection, if not exactly respect. When she wonders what’s wrong with her that she can’t even come up with a polite post-coital compliment, he supplies the rationale: ““You’re good and bent out of shape, pissed off like I’ve never seen a woman!” They share a laugh and Denny’s earned himself a semi-permanent invite to dinner.
Terry and Denny’s various displeasures are not without parallel in Upside‘s imprecise version of the outside world. As they hunker down inside their boozy hazes, they watch a lot of tv, providing rudimentary political commentary. The news anchors showcase the “Target: Terrorism” campaign of early 2002, reporting on the anthrax scares and the war in Afghanistan. These details work in two directions (for the characters living around that moment and for viewers some years after) toward the same effect, that is, to recall the trauma of 9/11 and also to suggest the prevalence (and eventual ordinariness) of U.S. official responses. Fear becomes mundane, war a (mostly distant) reality, and, yawn, life goes on.
By contrast, Terry’s response to trouble is ferocious. She hates her absent husband (he’s a “vile horrible pig”) and wants “her girls” to respond with equal venom, though, she insists, “I’m not gonna trash him to you.” (She never quite works up the rationality to contact him either, and so he hovers as an unfathomable void.) She turns dervishly inward, essentially abandoning her daughters who struggle, in their thinly caricatured ways, to deal with their loss: college grad Hadley gets pregnant by a very nice rich boy whom she describes as “not intelligent”; aspiring ballet dancer Emily stops eating; Popeye pours her observations into a class project, a video on aggression and irrationality (or something like that), while mooning cluelessly over a gay classmate; and Andy decides to get a job rather than going to college. As a PA for Denny’s radio show, she ends up sleeping with his utterly sleazy producer, the clunkily named Shep Goodman (Binder), who defends his serial bedding of 20-year-olds with a flip Woody Allenish flourish (“Don’t you knock my dating habits, they keep me young”).
For viewers familiar with Binder’s other fictions, Shep’s ostensible attractiveness for immature lovelies is something of a given. And that makes it tedious as well as self-serving: Shep will prove educational for Andy, almost in spite of himself, and the romance, which infuriates Terry to the point that she literally decks him, provides both him and Denny with occasions to grow up. Even in this providing, Shep appears at once a self-knowing and self-serving creation: during one dinner scene, an intoxicated, seething Terry imagines that Shep—slurping her soup—suffers a nasty demise, as his head explodes, leaving spatters of blood on family members seated at the table. While this may seem satisfying for viewers disliking Shep as much as Terry is, it’s also a cheap, if darkly comedic gimmick, not so much grappling with the problem Shep incarnates as dismissing it.
Aside from Allen, who is often remarkable, despite being enjoined to squint furiously through much of the film, they’re consigned to secondary roles in a movie that is supposedly abut them, their supposed pain (even as any emotional depth is repeatedly undermined by Alexandre Desplat’s irritatingly plinky, ostensibly humorous piano score). Pretty and predictable, the girls in Upside have nowhere to go but down.