For almost a decade, Kevin Costner seemed content to coast on his fading reputation as a heartthrob for women over 30 (Bull Durham, Tin Cup) and a formidable acting talent with earnestness to spare (Field of Dreams, Dances With Wolves). But whether his natural charisma crumbled under the weight of his grandiose visions for Waterworld and The Postman, or his depression over those failures led him to sleepwalk through saccharine fare like Message in a Bottle and For Love of the Game, audiences haven’t seen a Costner they could identify with, let alone root for, in quite a while.
In The Upside of Anger, Costner, with all his relaxed, rumpled charm, is back to perfection. As Denny Davies, he displays not only the old baseball magnetism we all knew and loved, but an infectious, self-deprecating humor that shows he is handling showbiz’s setbacks with grace.
Since retiring from the major leagues, Denny’s life has devolved into a kind of fraternity of one. He nurses beers most of the day and scotch neat at night. To keep food on the table (or at least libations in the glass) he hosts a juvenile call-in show where he and his producer make crass jokes and talk everything but baseball. And when that’s not enough to keep him in Budweiser and Bushmills, he has no qualms hocking the autographed balls, posters, and other paraphernalia he keeps horded in his storeroom.
In addition to his moderate alcohol dependency, Denny’s also nursing a crush on Terry Wolfmeyer (Joan Allen), the housewife next door. So, when circumstance and a cheating husband conspire to leave her single, he wastes no time making a play.
Terry, on the other hand, is feeling all played out. After discovering that her husband has unceremoniously taken off to Sweden with his secretary, she confronts the future the way many fortysomething women with no career and four daughters in various stages of adolescence might: She pulls down the shades and hits the bottle. Her daughters (Evan Rachel Wood, Erika Christensen, Keri Russell and Alicia Witt), beautiful and gifted to the last one, each respond to the turmoil in their own way–by getting pregnant and married, developing eating disorders, skipping college, and alternately forming and then disbanding alliances with one another.
Dysfunctional as they are, the Wolfmeyer ladies at least have the comfort of family, and Denny worms himself into an adopted place in it by nightly showing up at the dinner table, knowing that the mistress of the house is currently too lonely, too angry, and just plain too loaded to ask him to leave. It is through this shaky, boozy haze that Denny and Terry begin a relationship that could give Denny back his future and Terry back her peace.
Allen is spectacular as Terry, an angry, controlling, bitter (with a capital “B”) woman who spends half the film shuffling around in a bathrobe and slippers with a drink sloshing in her hand. From that description, Terry sounds like most men’s concept of a nightmare wife, yet the actress manages to make her character likeable and sexy as well.
In fact, Allen’s performance as a real desperate housewife is so layered and vital, one can’t help but contrast it to those the Academy typically awards–lesbian serial killers; backwoods, suicidal female boxers; abused wives of death row inmates, to name just a few “Best Actress” winning roles of recent years. Compared to these, Allen’s achievement is especially impressive considering her task is infinitely more difficult: Present average women with any of those Oscar-awarded characters, and they will have no idea if the actresses are presenting such persons accurately. But present them with a woman whose disappointment in love leads her to adopt a particularly sarcastic brand of humor and the need to down a vodka tonic every once in awhile, and they’ll be able to smell the fake a mile away.
The Upside of Anger is a story too rare in cinema today: It’s a love story for and about grown-ups–people who carry life’s scars into their next relationships and cope with disappointment in messy ways. Unfortunately, the film makes a fatal mistake by wrapping up with a plot twist that suggests Terry’s bitterness isn’t entirely well-founded. Her rancor and anger are so easily resolved by circumstances that the film abandons the relevant life questions that made the story so engaging to begin with: Can people betrayed and broken by those they love keep their righteous venom from making them something ugly? Can we experience the same degree of happiness as cynical adults that we did when love and sex were exciting, unexplored territories? Can our children ever forgive us for the hurt we inflict on them out of our own pain?
Rather than allow the tension that builds to run out of steam of its accord (as it typically does in families), director Mike Binder resolves too many conflicts with the characters pausing to look at each other and then inexplicably, at the height of their anger, bursting into laughter. But when he avoids these easy outs (as when Terry takes on the scuzzy, middle-aged producer who is sleeping with her daughter), The Upside of Anger is truly something special.
–Megan Basham is a freelance writer in Phoenix, Arizona, and a current Phillips Foundation fellow.