There is No Upside

The Upside of Anger is a vile, coarse temper tantrum

Josh Bell

This just in: Life in the suburbs is not as tranquil as it appears to be. If this is news to you, you might enjoy Mike Binder's ugly new comedy, The Upside of Anger, a repugnant, misogynistic and unpleasant look at a crumbling family in suburban Detroit.

Writer-director Binder, creator of the short-lived HBO series, The Mind of the Married Man, might be saying something new here if we hadn't already heard it in everything from American Beauty to Desperate Housewives. As it is, he uses what has come before to coast by on remembered insight, faking profundity by sounding significant while saying nothing.

The only saving grace is his cast, bursting with talented players who don't deserve to be mouthpieces for such rampant hostility. Getting most of the acclaim is Joan Allen, who stars as suburban housewife Terry Wolfmeyer. Terry discovers her husband has run off with his secretary, but rather than track him down or even bother filing for divorce, she simply retreats into her own booze-addled world, alternately drinking away her troubles and taking them out on her four daughters.

Played by some of the best young actresses working today, the daughters are 15-year-old Popeye (Evan Rachel Wood), who also narrates; high-school senior Emily (Keri Russell), a dancer who may or may not have an eating disorder; recent graduate Andy (Erika Christensen), who's decided to forgo college for a career as a broadcaster; and college senior Hadley (Alicia Witt), who hates her mother and runs away from the family's troubles.

Binder defines each with a single characteristic, and it's a credit to the actresses that they consistently make more of their roles than the filmmaker has given them. But no one (not even the lauded Allen) shines as much as Kevin Costner, who deftly lampoons his own image and gives wonderful life to Binder's only well-rounded character, a washed-up baseball player named Denny who slowly worms his way into Terry's life and eventually her bed (or perhaps it's the other way around).

Although Binder has done well to cast such strong, radiant actresses, his film is a raging morass of misogyny, a self-congratulatory exercise in mental masturbation whose most telling aspect is Binder's casting of himself as Shep, the sleazy radio producer who beds young Andy. Perhaps Binder thinks he's being self-mocking by putting himself in the role of an unkempt pervert, but it isn't hard to see the film's true message in Shep's rambling, self-serving monologues.

That's what's so insidious about this film: It pretends to empower its female characters while consistently maligning every decision they make, portraying them as insecure, helpless and manipulative screwups who make monumentally bad decisions for the sake of getting (and keeping) men in their lives. Only Emily escapes this fate, and that's because Binder has her in the hospital with a stress-related illness—one can't help but wonder if it was PMS in an earlier draft.

Into this sea of dysfunction and female helplessness wades the calm, rational (though constantly drunk and stoned) Denny, bringing into their lives the only real thing any woman needs, according to Binder: a man. Surrogate husband to Terry and surrogate father to her children, Denny is a savior in sweatpants and the antidote to all that pseudo-female empowerment crap Binder clearly can't stand.

In case he hasn't torn down his characters enough, Binder closes the film with a horrendous twist that insults both them and the audience, making Terry seem even more of a selfish, insensitive harpy than we've witnessed for the previous two hours. The twist comes out of an opening flash-forward set at a funeral, which allows Binder to tease us with the deaths of characters great and small throughout the film, only to pull the worst kind of manipulation in the end.

Through it all, Costner, Allen and the four young actresses make Binder's material seem funnier, smarter and much less mean-spirited than it really is; there's an extra star on the rating solely for them. Without those performances, this just would be the ravings of a bitter man who must be so afraid of strong women that he feels the need to castigate them on the big screen for 120 excruciating minutes.

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