Thursday, March 10, 2005

On "The Upside of Anger"

I want you to remember the name Mike Binder.

There is a scene just after halfway through his new dysfunctional family drama, The Upside of Anger, where the matriarch, played by Joan Allen, is giving a steely look down the dinner table. She has just walked in on her third daughter sleeping with her radio producer boss, played by Binder. Also at the table: her 2nd daughter, who has just said she wants to go to dancing school instead of college;her youngest daughter, who is… a blank teenager of sorts; and the next-door neighbor, a washed-up baseball player who enabled her constant drinking of vodka tonics with his own drinking. Her husband has left her about two years ago and hearing the radio producer slurp his soup is making her seethe quietly. She looks at him. He looks back. Slurps. She looks at him again. He looks at her.

And then his head explodes.

Graphically. Chunks everywhere, on the walls, the table, everyone. His nose falls in his soup.

I mention this because it’s emblematic of how utterly uneven this film is. The rest of the movie is subtle, quiet, full of small movements. There is a later scene where we get the connections between the women in the family because they all begin to laugh together. And mixed into the middle of it is this really horrific head explosion, as if Leatherface had suddenly developed an interest in plastic explosives.

After seeing two really good movies in a row and gushing about them on this blog, I was beginning to worry that I would come across as one of these people that gushes about everything, because I try to avoid drivel. This one had promise since, after all, it stars Joan Allen, who I usually love. And Kevin Costner, who I could live without, but we haven’t seen him for a while. But oh boy, what an absolute disaster of a film.

I should have seen it coming at the very beginning. The film opens with a voice-over by one of the daughters (voice-over to open? rarely a good sign) who says, “My mother was the nicest person one could ever know. Ask anyone who knows her.” And quickly, we realize we will never actually see her be nice. We’ll just take the daughter’s word for it that she hasn’t always been the uber-bitchy, selfish mom that she remains throughout the whole movie. Her daughters hate her – but if she’s so nice, then why?

The really horrible thing is that the movie has some really wonderful individual scenes which are both funny and touching; the problem is that Binder has both too much in the film and really doesn’t know what to do with anything. Why have four daughters, when really we only delve into two of their stories? And why give them pseudo-masculine names, like Hadley, Andy, Popeye (no joke), and Felicity? Oh wait, her name isn’t Felicity, it’s just Keri Russell… playing a high-school sophomore. Yeah. Right.

Which leads me back to why you should remember Binder: because the man clearly does not know what to do with a movie. The performances are actually pretty good – Allen does her best with what turns out to be a really one-note character and Costner is hilarious as the stoned wash-up. (And I don’t even like Costner!) And the daughters are fine too. But the film is edited so unevenly, I’m actually wondering if Binder even looked at the material he had carefully enough. The script needed editing to begin with – get rid of two of the daughters, give the mom more of a personality, make us care a bit about the missing dad, etc. – and then the editor needed to cut and trim scenes in a more effective manner. The movie has such awkward transitions, I felt wrenched from one disparate scene to the next. And since he directed, produced and starred in the film (he actually isn’t such a bad actor), I hold him entirely responsible for molding some pretty good performances into such a piece of junk.

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