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  • Writer's pictureCollin Souter

eFilmcritic Archive: "The Upside of Anger" (2005)

According to Matt Groening’s “Love Is Hell,” heartbreak occurs in 22 stages, from the initial shock to finally getting over it. The first few stages have to do with the overall disbelief of having been dumped. The next few deal with the slow sinking sensation you feel once it has all sunk in that you have been dumped and that you will now be alone and left for dead (the ‘Pain and Weeping’ stages). Then comes the Drunken Stupor-and-Hangover stage, followed almost immediately by Deep Despair and Sudden Rage. “The Upside of Anger” focuses on a woman at this particular stage in the break-up process and it lasts about three years.

I’m simplifying this, of course, and so is Matt Groening, but his cartoon still reeks of truth and not every break-up works the same way. Sometimes, a person stays in the pain-and-weeping stage and skips the alcohol binge entirely. Sometimes, it feels as though a weight has been lifted. Other times, a person will skip the pain and weeping and head straight for the bottle. That seems to be Terry Wolfmeyer’s (Joan Allen) way. Throughout the first half of Mike Binder’s film, we rarely see Terry without a drink in her hand or contempt in her eyes.

Terry’s husband has up and left with his secretary. In an act of cowardice, he has fled the country with her, leaving behind his four beautiful daughters, his big house in Ann Arbor and his wife, who doesn’t seem to have a job or skill. She has seen a break-up coming a mile away, but because he did it in such a flimsy and foolish fashion, she has nothing but anger and resentment for him. She refuses to call him. She refuses to divorce him. She refuses to acknowledge his existence until he has the balls to show his face at the house one more time.

Keeping her sane while testing her patience are her four daughters: Andy (Erika Christiansen), Emily (Keri Russell), Hadley (Alicia Witt) and Lavender (Evan Rachel Wood), who also goes by the name of “Popeye.” Inviting himself into the mix is Denny Davies (Kevin Costner), a neighbor who used to be (what else?) a pro baseball player. Now, he enjoys a second career in radio as a disc jockey who flat-out refuses to talk about his glory days playing ball (Just a side note…no way would this guy really get his own radio show. No way). Like Terry, Denny likes to drink. He often shows up at her house out of the blue with a can of Budweiser in his hand and usually ends up being invited to dinner.

As the opening dictates, we will now spend the next two hours watching these characters as they evolve over the next three years. Terry’s oldest daughter, Hadley, is in college and has been seeing a boy for three years, unbeknownst to her testy mom. Emily has dreams to dance in the ballet, but her mom can’t seem to take this dream seriously. Andy refuses to go to college. She would rather work as a journalist. This being a movie, Denny gets her a job as a production assistant at his radio station (you mean interns get paid now!?!). Finally, Popeye has the hots for the quiet loner kid at school.

Of course, Terry and Denny soon have the hots for each other and their fling plays out as you would expect. Denny has a notorious reputation for bedding women half his age while Terry has been monogamous for at least 20 years. It’s standard fare along the lines of “Something’s Gotta Give” and “Terms of Endearment,” but Allen and Costner make it work. I would guess that Costner feels rather close to this role. He gives a surprisingly restrained performance that could have been overkill and foolish, but he manages to make Denny a believable person who needs to make amends with his life.

The whole of “Upside” can be looked at the same way. Binder’s movie gets saved by its stellar cast and what they bring to it. The movie works as a perfect showcase for Joan Allen, who finally gets to mix some comedy into her tragedy. For all its plot contrivances, Allen kept me watching this movie, but Binder’s screenplay too often veers off into storylines that could have been left on the cutting room hard drive while too many scenes end with one character suddenly breaking into laughter as everyone else in the room slowly joins in. However, there’s one moment in the movie that almost negates every criticism that I had while watching it and it’s funnier and more violent than anything I’ve seen in any PG-13 horror movie of the past few months.

All of these qualities might have saved “The Upside of Anger” enough to warrant a recommendation, but nothing could save it from its ending. I felt slapped in the face walking out of this movie and, ironically enough, angry. It’s a terrible mis-step and carries the same amount of absurdity as anything in “Diary of a Mad Black Woman.” It causes you to rethink everything you just saw, which would be fine, but you realize that all of Binder’s good intentions and warm feelings had just been sold out to a surprise ending that makes absolutely no sense. There’s a way it could have worked, but of course I can’t get into that. It just made me angry. But I’ll get over it.

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