Say you were actor-writer-director Mike Binder, and you lived every day with the terrible burden of having loosed a show called "The Mind of the Married Man" (one of HBO's late, unlamented early stabs at a male "Sex and the City") on a trusting world. What would you do for your next trick?
If you really wanted to atone, you'd make a smart, funny, warmhearted movie about a bitter, elitist, stay-at-home lush; set her up with the sweet, washed-up, drunken jock down the street; cast yourself in a minor role as the twitchy, cradle-robbing lech who winds up alone, and then, OK, bygones would be bygones.
"The Upside of Anger" is a terrible title for a genuinely likable comedy-drama about a housewife who falls rather extravagantly to pieces after her husband leaves one day without warning. Grey Wolfmeyer mysteriously disappears three days after his young assistant's sudden return to her native Sweden, so, as any self-respecting executive wife would, Terry Wolfmeyer (Joan Allen) naturally assumes he's run off to enjoy the lingonberry pancakes and a good laugh at her expense. Instead of trying to reach out to Grey, Terry reaches for the Grey Goose, interrupting cocktail hour just long enough to encourage thoughts of patricide in her four beautiful daughters.
When Denny Davies (Kevin Costner), the has-been baseball star down the street, finds out what's happened, he embarks on a patient campaign to win Terry over. Denny, who spends his days refusing to talk baseball on his radio talk show (much to the irritation of the station's managers), then goes home to drink and sign balls, boasts the sort of empty home life that makes the Wolfmeyer household look like a Norman Rockwell painting.
It doesn't bother him at all, for instance, that Terry's daughters, Hadley (Alicia Witt), Emily (Keri Russell), Andy (Erika Christensen) and Popeye (Evan Rachel Wood), share the same expectant, somewhat tense air of a First Response team on duty — ready to spring into action at the drop of a hat with a sympathetic "I hate him too!" (To which Terry replies with some variation on, "I know you do, honey. How could you not? You're human!") And he's willing to hit extremes to make himself welcome at the dinner table, even going so far as to ask one of the girls to recite "Brownie" — by which he means "Browning" — like she used to when she was a kid. Naturally, the girls leap at the chance to mock him mercilessly, which delights him to no end.
"What's so funny?" Andy asks.
"Nothing," he says, giggling. "It's all so female."
"The Upside of Anger" is a squarely suburban movie with a distinctly bourgeois-shaped window on the world, but it's genuine and exceptionally well observed. All of the characters seem to exist on a complicated emotional plane between self-awareness and denial. They're grateful for their privilege but still feel gypped. The movie ends with a twist I never saw coming — at least not in the package it did. But more than that, it's the kind of twist that inspires reflection rather than gag reflex — which these days is really a twist on the old twist.
Binder based the movie in part on his experiences as the child of a "broken home" — an expression Popeye uses as a pickup line on a cute boy in her class. But he captures the miasmic emotional transferences between mothers and their teenage daughters (invisible to the naked eye but capable of inflicting gamma-ray-level mutational devastation) so well that you half-wonder if he ever was one himself.
I should probably point out that I'm by no means suggesting that Binder simply had to swap contemptible men for contemptible women and all would be right with the world. Terry Wolfmeyer is nobody's idea of a nice lady. And, if anything, the men in the movie are far more deserving of sympathy than the women. (Denny has his flaws, but by any standard the guy is a prince, a teddy bear and a rock rolled into one — which I suppose makes him something like the plushy version of Prince William? Harry? Haakon of Norway?) The one irredeemable character in the movie is Shep (writer-director Binder himself), Denny's best friend and producer, who gives the just-out-of-high school Andy a job at the station and proceeds to start an affair with her.
The difference in tone between the series and the movie, in other words, has nothing to do with gender swapping and everything to do with Binder having created fully realized, complex characters whose humanity makes us like them because of, not in spite of, their many flaws. Naturally, much of that credit goes to the actors. Allen, in particular, is so rage-fueled and kinetic, I can't help remembering her, in retrospect, like an animated character: a Tasmanian devil type in a shift dress.
Narrated by Popeye, who is working on a class project about the transformative effects of anger (it seems a little esoteric for the ninth grade, but OK), the movie sits back contentedly and lets Terry spin completely out of control, much in the same way Denny does.
It's a great piece of against-the-grain casting: The usually imperturbable Allen practically self-combusts with bitterness and rage, while usually steely Costner achieves near-Jeff Bridges levels of chilled-out equanimity. He's the easygoing beleaguered guy, patron saint of high-maintenance women everywhere, the kind of guy who can weather a heartfelt postcoital line like, "God, that was a misstep," without so much as a flinch. (Sure, he kicks a door down later, but by the time he gets around to it, he's banked enough goodwill miles to get him to Bangkok.)
As for Shep, Terry knocks him flat on the lawn in the middle of a wedding. Shep-as-Shep, you're happy to see him go down. Shep-as-Binder, not so much. But by the time it happens near the movie's end, past transgressions have long been forgiven.
'The Upside of Anger'
MPAA rating: R for language, sexual situations, brief comic violence and some drug use
Times guidelines: A smart adult drama with some real world sex and violence.
Joan Allen...Terry Wolfmeyer
Kevin Costner...Denny Davies
Evan Rachel Wood...Popeye Wolfmeyer
Keri Russell...Emily Wolfmeyer
Erika Christensen...Andy Wolfmeyer
Alicia Witt...Hadley Wolfmeyer
New Line Cinema presents, in association with Media 8 Entertainment, a VIP Medienfonds 2/VIP Medienfonds 3/MDP Filmproduktion co-production, a Sunlight production, released by New Line. Writer-director Mike Binder. Producers Alex Gartner, Jack Binder, Sammy Lee. Executive producers Mark Damon, Stewart Hall, Andreas Grosch, Andreas Schmid. Director of photography Richard Greatrex. Editor Steve Edwards. Costume designer Deborah Scott. Music Alexandre Desplat. Production designer Chris Roope. Running time: 1 hour, 56 minutes.In general release