Thursday, March 24, 2005

REVIEW: The Upside of Anger

Here's the new one from Mike Binder, an writer/director/actor who's very existence places me in a fairly exclusive group of people; namely folks living outside of the film industry who had heard of him before about a year ago. If you followed the brief spate of early-1990s films with an eye on being "the next 'Big Chill," you might have seen a charming little film he wrote and directed called "Indian Summer," (which was likely more widely-seen for the presence of Sam Raimi as an actor than anything else.)

My aquaintance with Binder's work begins about three years back via a low-budget indie comedy he made called "Sex Monster," starring Mariel Hemingway as a woman who becomes "addicted" to lesbian-sex after being talked into a threesome by her husband (Binder.) The "hook" to the film is that we see almost none of the sex scenes, instead concentrating on the allegedly-humorous reactions of Binder's hard-luck hero. As you might expect, this movie plays like a Jet Li movie where they close the door on all the fight sequences.

I "got" what Binder was going for with "Sex Monster," in trying to examine the "dynamic" of the situation devoid of the distractions that would come from visualizing the film's more "exploitative" elements, (i.e. Mariel Hemingway executing a flawless faceplant into the lap of a dinner guest's comely college-age daughter.) Trouble is, the film just wasn't terribly interesting outside of it's premise, playing too much like "Live Nude Girls," "Just a Little Harmless Sex" and all the other little indie comedies operating under the mistaken impression that they have something new and profound to say about adult relationships. Following this, Binder had a brief HBO series, "Mind of the Married Man" which suffered from more of the same problem.

That being said, whatever may have been wrong with Binder's work prior has evaporated from this film: "The Upside of Anger" is the best Romantic Comedy/Drama for grownups in a long, long time. The actors are terrific, Binder's script is spot-on and it's genuinely funny, moving and interesting. It's a damn, damn good movie, and you owe it to yourself to go see it even if it looks about as far away from "your thing" as you can imagine.

The story, in truth, plays like a thoroughly-modern take on Douglas Sirk's cycle of 1950s "women's pictures" (as opposed to Todd Hayne's retro-reworking of the same, "Far From Heaven,") in which classy, socially well-off women struggled to maintain dignity and composure amidst foundation-shaking emotional crisis. Whether intentional or not, the film mirrors Sirk's entries beyond just setup and theme; it shares with them the visual fondness for idyllic, pastoral upper-class suburban enclaves perpetually "glossed" by autmun foliage or fresh-fallen snow. What Binder brings to the material is subtle but important, a life-informed subtext that understands that these characters are not inhabiting a Norman Rockwell world but rather a "real" world which they themselves have attempted to sculpt-into a Rockwell reflection.

Joan Allen, that radiant actress able better than anyone to embody a beautiful older woman as opposed to a beautiful woman who happens to be older, stars as the above-described classy, socially well-off woman; here Terry Wolfmeyer, a mother of four daughters (three college-aged and a teenager) who's husband has fled the country with his Swedish secretary, leaving no trace and seemingly no desire to be seen again. She slips in a perpetual (but always presentable) alcoholic-haze, which gradually alienates her daughters but more-quickly earns her a new best friend: Denny, (Kevin Costner,) a similarly-alcoholic neighbor who, through encounters that surely make perfect sense to those thusly innebriated, becomes first her drinking buddy, then regular dinner guest and eventually lover but never quite her "boyfriend," as if some silent agreement has been struck between them that two people in what looks to be their 50s really oughtn't bother with youthful dating-pleasantries.

It shows a certain maturity and unique understanding (read: he knows people just like this) on Binder's part, I think, that Terry and Denny exist not as comical movie-drunks or self-destructive "Leaving Las Vegas" tragic-drunks but as the more rarely-seen breed of the Functional Alcoholic. This, of course, is just like a regular alcoholic save that they possess the financial comfortability and modicum of restraint to avoid serious trouble. Granted, Terry and Denny are hardly Nick and Nora Charles, but it reads clear that they're much less harmed by their drinking than they are by avoiding the problems driving them to drink in the first place. In their more lucid moments between casual substance-abuse, they share casual walks and enjoy casual sex, and it's easy to see that for all that it isn't their relationship "works" in the casual way they both need it to...

...except that it can't, because Terry's girls with their whole lives ahead of them need a mother who can nuture them and a father figure to help, and while neither Terry or Denny is well-suited to either of these roles they gradually get their acts (mostly) together to help the girls through a difficult two (or more) year period which the film covers.

What's best about the film's branching storylines involving the Wolfmeyer daughters is that they are played smart and without need for unnecessary shouting and histrionics: In no particular order, Terry is asked to deal with one daughter's sudden marriage, another's dating a much older man and another's development of an eating disorder. It's obvious that these problems are all reactions to their father's absence, but the film trusts you to get that and never really vocalizes the concept. What's more, the film deftly avoids falling into a rythym by which all of the problems are an excuse for Terry to explode into comedic fury. Oh, she gets mad all right... but for the most part her reaction is entirely in-character and realistic: She usually just leaves the scene, immediately intuitive of situations where there's simply nothing she can do. The three daughters with the biggest problems are all adults, after all, and if nothing else the film is ABOUT learning to live with life's imperfections.

On that note, kudos to the film's handling of the subplot of the youngest daughter experimenting with drugs, or rather that the film DOESN'T deal with it. The character is shown using a bong with a friend, and... that's about it. The film has bigger fish to fry, and it wisely avoids the mistake of treating this indiscretion as anywhere near worth the "drama" of the near-fatal eating disorder, the hurried marriage or the exploitation of a younger girl by an older man. It's a character detail, a small piece of a larger arc for the girl, and the film is smart enough to know that an extraneous scene of Costner or Allen crashing through her door, raising a righteous finger to heaven and mouthing D.A.R.E. slogans (not in the least because Terry and Denny are in NO position to lecture anyone else about substance abuse, after all.)

And hey, let's here it for Kevin Costner, in what could end up being the career-reboot he needed. He hasn't been this good in a movie for a good long time, so good for him!

This is just a fine film, even better than I hope I've made it sound (for reasons it would be wrong for me to tell you here.) There's not a smarter movie about romance, relationships, family etc. playing in theaters right now. Highly reccomended.