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Dumbness Is the Downside in 'The Upside of Anger'

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 18, 2005; Page C05

To watch "The Upside of Anger" is to ask that timeless cinematic question: Where have you gone, James L. Brooks? Of course Brooks's most recent film, "Spanglish," raised the same query, but think back to "As Good as It Gets" and you realize that Brooks remains the master of tart, adult dramedy. "The Upside of Anger," written and directed by Mike Binder, clearly aspires to be a Brooksian comedy of manners, but instead it feels like a retread of several better movies, with a nastier, more bitter edge.

No one in "The Upside of Anger" is nastier or more bitter than Terry Wolfmeyer, a recently jilted mother of four daughters living in a plush mansion outside Detroit. Joan Allen, whose recent role in "Off the Map" suggests that she is finally breaking out of roles calling for icy restraint, here veers even further afield as a furious, often unhinged woman on the verge of a murderous rampage. As the movie opens, Terry is drunkenly explaining her husband's departure with his Swedish secretary to her four daughters (Erika Christensen, Evan Rachael Wood, Keri Russell and Alicia Witt). Throughout the film, Terry unsteadily comes to terms with her newly single status and the fact that her daughters are growing up and out of her control. Meanwhile, she's being heavily courted by Denny (Kevin Costner), a former pro baseball player who, like Terry, is a barely functioning alcoholic.

Both Kevin Costner's Denny and Joan Allen's Terry are barely functioning alcoholics in "The Upside of Anger." (Paul Chedlow -- New Line Productions Via AP)

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Like last year's inexplicably popular "Sideways," "The Upside of Anger" plays drinking problems for laughs, an indication of the cheap shots it resorts to in order to move ahead. Binder also thinks it's charming to have his two romantic leads conduct an otherwise soporific heart-to-heart in the middle of a traffic jam they caused, and to end nearly every scene with someone -- usually Costner -- dissolving into a fit of goofy giggles.

Costner, as the character who would be played by Jack Nicholson in Brooks's version of the movie, is no Nicholson. But his lumbering blandness qualifies him to play a man who, when life hands him lemons, chooses to make a big Tom Collins. Still, for someone of such laid-back tendencies, Denny is an oddly charmless dullard who serves more as a foil for the raging female emotions swirling around him than as an authentic character. "You know somethin'?" Costner says in a typical piece of dialogue. "Nothin'." Indeed.

As Terry, Allen delivers a volatile performance that only occasionally descends from finely controlled rage to something more akin to acting-school hysterics (a scene in which she catches one of her daughters having sex finds Allen in the rare position of overacting). Viewers will recognize Terry as one of a new breed of movie mothers, women who came of age in the '60s and who unapologetically enjoyed the recreational substances of that era and has often unnervingly frank relationships with their kids. These are the older, slightly more cynical sisters of the WB's Lorelai Gilmore, who are as likely to cadge a joint off their teenagers as they are to nag them to do homework. Like Sigourney Weaver's character in the recent "Imaginary Heroes," as well as the moms in "Pieces of April," "Donnie Darko" and "Thirteen," Allen's Terry and her prickly exasperation will surely strike a familiar chord in anyone who has found herself trapped in a life she doesn't quite remember asking for.

But unlike the often witheringly funny "Pieces of April" or "Lovely & Amazing," Nicole Holofcener's fine-toothed excavation of a mother's love for her daughters, "The Upside of Anger" demonstrates little by way of insight or truly observant humor. As he did in his similarly cliched HBO series "The Mind of the Married Man," Binder seems more interested in indulging his own fantasies about how women operate rather than delving deeply into the more complex, contradictory dynamics of their relationships.

It's telling that in one scene -- in which viewers will be steeling themselves for a "Terms of Endearment"-like revelation -- Binder explicitly invokes Larry David, his far more talented colleague at HBO. Binder obviously fancies himself a purveyor of David's signature brand of comedy-with-a-cruel-streak; the problem is that Binder's humor has a dumb streak twice as wide. What's more, as its preposterously silly ending suggests, he has failed to heed David's Golden Rule: No hugging, no learning. One might add, no stealing, unless you can make it better.

The Upside of Anger (116 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for profanity, sexual situations, brief comic violence and some drug use.

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