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These Actors Have 'Upside'

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 18, 2005; Page WE46

WE ARE drunk. We are treading water in a mental puddle of perfect oblivion. We are having fun. Or are we? In "The Upside of Anger," an edgy, tragi-farce from Mike Binder, "we" are suburban wife Terry Wolfmeyer (Joan Allen), whose husband has suddenly left her for his Swedish secretary.

So Terry isn't so very happy at all.

Keri Russell, left, Joan Allen, Evan Rachel Wood and Erika Christensen in "The Upside of Anger," about a mother (Allen) who turns to alcohol after her husband leaves her. (Paul Chedlow -- New Line)

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Which is why she grabs two or three of those tall bottles of vodka from the grocery shelves every time she goes shopping. The drinking starts early. And so does her razor humor, with nasty one-liner quips at the dinner table in front of her shocked daughters. Or just sitting in front of the television, which she does all day, still in her nightgown.

Terry's losing emotional contact with her children, all of them bright and beautiful. She can't be there for them. Not right now. But she's still furious at them for growing away from her. It's a terrible affront to her self-pity.

Her oldest daughter, Hadley (Alicia Witt), a college student, makes one of those hear-a-pin-drop announcements, the kind that includes an upcoming wedding and a due date. And then there's Andy (Erika Christensen), who becomes involved with Shep (Binder), a sleazy, middle-age radio producer who promises her a job but is really looking for a sexual relationship. Andy sees no problem with this arrangement.

Emily (Keri Russell) is an aspiring ballet dancer whose obsession for her art has left her cold and lifeless. And there's Terry's youngest, the teenaged Popeye (Evan Rachel Wood), who's all too observant about mom's shortcomings and boozy funk. Can't a mother drink herself stupid without getting so much grief?

The biggest event of Terry's life, however, isn't the disappearance of her husband or her deteriorating relationships with her daughters. It's Denny (Kevin Costner), Terry's roguish, beer-swilling neighbor and a former baseball player, who starts coming around every day, as soon as he hears she's alone. Denny, who has parlayed his fame into an on-air gig at Shep's radio station, seems to have nothing better to do than bother Terry. What does he really want -- as if she doesn't know?

What's best about "Upside" is its gonzo-sitcom craziness, a situation that lends itself to enjoyable performances. All four actresses are terrific as Terry's daughters. And so is Costner as the indolent, ultimately sensitive Denny. The 50-year-old actor hasn't lost that lazy, knowing charm that has served him so well in such films as "Tin Cup." Binder's turn as Shep practically steals the movie. He's about as scurrilous a character as ever slouched and sleazed his way across the screen. But he's so blissfully unapologetic, you can't help but warm to the rascal.

Allen is outstanding as the inebriated Terry, whose senses are intoxicated but never dulled. There's a wonderful scene in which she is invited to celebrate her daughter Hadley's nuptials with the future in-laws. But she's pretty upset about being the last to hear the news. Her every gesture, from the way she rigorously orders her drinks to an addled, longwinded toast of sheer aggression, strikes a tense, yet strangely humorous chord.

While the actors are cooking away, however, the movie takes a conventional turn for the redemptive. Suddenly, everyone seems directed toward saving themselves just in time for the ending. And though this development may be satisfying to many, there's something underhanded and contrived as well. Apparently, if you want to stop drinking, for instance, all you have to do is quit putting those bottles in your shopping cart. It's too bad Bill Wilson, the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous didn't hear about this sooner. Who needs to go through 12 steps of recovery when all you need is a transition montage? If only life were like that.

THE UPSIDE OF ANGER (R, 116 minutes) -- Contains obscenity, sexual scenes, drinking and drug use, and some violence. Area theaters.

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