The Upside of Anger

When Terry (Joan Allen) finds herself single again after her husband leaves her, she bottoms out into an abyss of alcohol and rage. After inviting her four daughters (Erika Christensen, Evan Rachael Wood, Kerri Russell, and Alicia Witt) into her web of self-pity, Terry finds solace in the arms of radio host Denny (Kevin Costner), an aging baseball has-been who equally loves the drink and the comfort of Terry’s family. Forming a bond over their shared hatred of intimacy, Terry and Denny begin an unpredictable courtship that changes them in ways they aren’t prepared for.

In 1994, writer/director Mike Binder gave the world the Damon Wayans comedy “Blankman,” so please forgive me if I seem blown away by the often-exquisite filmmaking found in “Upside of Anger.” Binder, who also appears as Denny’s radio producer, has spent the last handful of years regenerating his long-stalled filmmaking career (“The Mind of the Married Man”) by taking on more adult material that explores adult relationships. “Anger” is the product of a much-improved Binder, who soaks the picture with a strong sense of truth, comedy, and the realities of life’s curve balls. “Anger” is a terribly funny movie, but it also floors with its sincerity in addressing parental and romantic relationships. Easily, this is the best work Binder has ever done, for he is wise and brave enough to make an adult-themed movie that is actually for adults.

Joan Allen is the star of the “Anger” show, and she earns every last drop of kudos that could possibly be bestowed upon her. As the imploding Terry, Allen has never been better, hitting all the right notes and providing the perfect reactions in her layered performance. Ducking and weaving shrill or bitter acting tendencies like a pro boxer, Allen gives the film her all, and Binder gives it right back to her with delicious scenes that permit Allen a chance to show her roundhouse comedic skills, which have never been let out to play. Allen has a terrific dance partner in Kevin Costner, who opens up in “Anger” to give the loosest performance I’ve seen out of him since 1996’s “Tin Cup.” Playing up the failed, boozehound baseball player backstory with glee (nods to “Bull Durham” and “For Love of the Game” are present), Costner is hilarious, charming, and vulnerable. His moments of courtship with Allen are magic, not only for their chemistry but also to witness a rare chance to watch older characters connecting on a sexual level that isn’t played for laughs. Allen and Costner make quite a team, eventually leaving the film a tad empty whenever they aren’t present.

What really cripples the flow of “Anger” is Binder’s inability to keep his plot threads straight. The film takes place over the course of three years, which leaves ample room for time jumps and character growth. In the hands of a better filmmaker, these hurdles are easily jumped; Binder, however, fumbles every last one. A major continuity problem lies in the arrangement of Terry’s daughters, who are all over the map in terms of age, pregnancy status, and educational location. It feels as though whenever “Anger” really gets going and sucks the viewer in, the spell is broken by Binder’s lackluster screenwriting, which has the characters spewing required personal information before a scene begins so the audience won’t be lost. It deeply tarnishes the work.

Ending on a rather curious, if needed note of peace, “Anger” remains an overpoweringly charming affair. The performances make the cracks in the filmmaking disappear, and if you’ve doubted Kevin Costner or Joan Allen over the last few years, this is a terrific chance to see them both firing on all cylinders.

Rating: A-