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The Upside of Anger

While the American film industry may mark 2005 as a year of weak box-office returns, the fact remains that most movies are doomed to fail on the big screen. And not merely because, as some folks insist, they just aren't as good as they used to be. Instead, the studios' emphasis on immediate box-office returns, as well as their reliance upon blitzkrieg marketing strategies, means that the pulse-rate of any given cinematic product can be measured the morning after it debuts nationwide, and the hard numbers on Monday morning not only dictate the tone of the second week's marketing campaign ("America's #1 Comedy!"), but also if it will earn further support or simply flatline into second-run obscurity. For the pencil-pushers, it's not a bad strategy — at least as far as mediocre movies go. If a title earns enough money on its opening weekend alone, DVD sales often will put it in the black within a year. But it's hardly the sort of environment in which to debut sophisticated, intelligent films that defy glib categorization. And for that, if for nothing else, we can be grateful for Sundance. Before the emergence of the Summer Blockbuster in the 1970s, a slow rollout of new films was common, arriving first in larger cities, then trickling down into smaller markets, where strong reviews and word-of-mouth bolstered theatrical runs that stretched for months instead of weeks. Since the early '90s, the Sundance Film Festival (and other events) has nurtured the slow rollout when Tinseltown would not, and the string of successes that have debuted in Park City include such memorable (and profitable) hits as Sex Lies and Videotape, Heathers, Roger & Me, Reservoir Dogs, Pi, The Blair Witch Project, Memento, 28 Days Later, and Napoleon Dynamite. A good Sundance title can sustain a slow-burn in theaters and enjoy a long life on home video — and while it didn't win any festival awards, The Upside of Anger will be remembered as one of the breakout films of 2005.

Written and directed by Mike Binder, Joan Allen stars in The Upside of Anger as Terry Wolfmeyer, an upper-middle-class suburban Detroit homemaker who wakes up one day to face her worst nightmare — her husband has left home, taking with him nothing more than his wallet and the clothes on his back. Aware that he had been carrying on with his Swedish secretary, Terry tries to face reality as best she can, despite the fact that she has four daughters to raise and no clear source of future income. Hope comes in the form of longtime family friend and neighbor Denny Davies (Kevin Costner) — the retired baseball star is fronting a group of financiers who hope to acquire the Wolfmeyers' undeveloped property behind the family home, and Terry is not opposed to selling. But Denny's intentions are multifold. He's never tried to hide his affection for Terry, and while she initially resists his romantic overtures, their shared sense of midlife ennui — and barely restrained alcoholism — turn them into a pair of mismatched soulmates. In the meantime, Terry insists upon remaining a strong — often headstrong — parent, even if her relationships with her four daughters are tepid at best, and far from nurturing. College-bound Hadley (Alicia Witt) is the perfect child who disapproves of her mother's drinking, while Andy (Erika Christensen) does not plan to attend college but instead wants to enter the working world directly from high school. Emily (Keri Russell) hopes to become a professional dancer, a dream Terry discourages. And the youngest, 'Popeye' (Evan Rachel Wood), is still working out the tough details of her mid-teen years.

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As the title suggests, The Upside of Anger concerns not merely the events of Terry Wolfmeyer's life in the wake of her collapsed marriage, but her emotional state as well — at turns she's witty, caustic, selfish, and yes, angry. But it's hard to tell if her bitterness stems directly from her sense of abandonment, or in fact if she's always been a controlling, abrasive personality. The issue is never settled. It's difficult to believe that she's transformed into an entirely new woman, no matter how burdened she feels by her loss. And yet one of her daughters insists that, before her father left, Terry was "sweet to everyone." As with virtually everything in Mike Binder's script, there are no pat answers, no pop psychology. Instead, the film deftly illustrates how suburban dreams can crumble under the weight of fragmentary, unstructured lives, and it does so without either the cold detachment of The Ice Storm or the easy cynicism of American Beauty. Despite its somewhat bleak subject-matter, The Upside of Anger bristles with humor and genuine, flesh-and-blood characters. Joan Allen shoulders nearly every scene and deserves a lion's share of the credit. Only a virtuoso performer can take a character who's essentially unlikable and make every moment on screen compelling. Nonetheless, the script's unusual chemistry would be nonexistent without Kevin Costner, who reveals that he's a mature leading man (his weight gain here is both noticeable and entirely fitting). Despite playing — once again — a baseball player, Anger represents a notable evolution in Costner's career, and along with Open Range (2004) should do a great deal to put such misfires as Robin Hood and Waterworld to rest. His loopy, somewhat dim earnestness collides against Allen's porcelain resolve, making for a story that can't be encapsulated by a make-or-break marketing campaign: "Drunk ex-baseball star falls for caustic divorcée." The Upside of Anger is about life lived without a script, and how even our best choices may be the very things that confine us when fate turns over the next page.

New Line's DVD release features a solid anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with DTS, Dolby Digital 5.1, and Dolby 2.0 Surround options. Supplements include a chatty commentary with writer-director-costar Mike Binder, star Joan Allen, and Rod Lurie (who directed both in The Contender) — among the many behind-the-scenes details, they enjoy revealing how the entire production, set in Binder's hometown of Detroit, was shot in London. Also on board are eight deleted scenes with a "play-all" option, the featurette "Creating The Upside of Anger" (28 min.), and the theatrical trailer. Keep-case.

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