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Friday, June 2, 2006
Sweet to sour
By KAORI SHOJI
"The Upside of Anger" can best be described as "Little Women Redux." But while the four sisters and their mother in Louisa May Alcott's classic 1868 novel were hardly ever angry and never even considered using a swear word (they probably never heard one spoken out loud in their entire lives), the women in "Upside," in particular the fiftysomething mother, habitually unfurl their rage in varying degrees of piss-off defiance and pissed-off raving.
"Upside," titled "Mama ga Naita hi" in Japan, shows how much American motherhood has changed, albeit superficially. The mother in "Little Women" delivered soup to the needy in her long, dark skirts, but here, the mother is attractively catty, dresses like her teenage daughters and kicks off her mornings with a vodka on the rocks. Still, this racy mom seems just as one-dimensional as the pious mom, both striking in their nonoriginality. And that, really, is the downside to "Upside."
Written and directed by Mike Binder ("The Mind of the Married Man"), who also stars in the movie, "Upside" isn't kidding about its title: It's instructive in that the best thing about getting angry -- really angry -- is that your family will start obeying your irate, unreasonable commands. They'll comfort you when you weep, tell you they love you. Plus, you'll get to indulge in pastimes such as giving the finger to well-meaning strangers, or, say, punching a man full-force in the nose at a public event.
"My mom used to be the kindest, sweetest person I knew," recalls one of the daughters. "And then one day . . . she became angry." Actually, it's more like: "And then one day she decided to start enjoying herself."
Mom, whose name is Terri Wolfmeyer (played by Joan Allen in a bitch-on-wheels mode), may have once been nice, but we see no inkling of this throughout the film, which opens with the revelation that Terri's husband ran away with his Swedish secretary. Mom is horrid from the get-go and stays that way, though she's still fascinating, much like a snake that catches its prey with a malevolent stare.
Announcing to her four daughters -- Hadley (Alicia Witt), Emily (Keri Russell), Andy (Erika Christensen) and Popeye (Evan-Rachel Wood) -- that their father is a "pig, and a small, small man," Terri cuts up his credit cards and then reaches for the gin bottle.
Joining her in soused, seething misery is neighbor Denny Davis (Kevin Costner), a former Detroit Tigers star now hosting a local radio show.
Apparently, Denny had nursed a secret crush on Terri and wastes no time inviting himself over to dinner and parking himself, first on the couch and later on the bed.
Annoyed at first, Terri soon tolerates Denny, if only to get back at her husband. Not that the affair puts a dent in her steely armor.
Her daughters eventually rebel in their own ways: Hadley by getting pregnant and marrying straight out of college, Emily by refusing to eat, and Andy by quitting school and getting work at Denny's radio station where she starts dating sleazy, crumpled, middle-aged producer Shep (Mike Binder).
One of the best, most caustic moments in the movie involves a fantasy sequence imagined by Terri as they're all seated together for dinner: Suddenly, Shep's head explodes, splattering everyone's faces and their plates with brains and blood. Terri smiles contentedly and through all the red, continues to spoon mouthfuls of soup.
All the five women in the Wolfmeyer household seek some kind of vindication, but 15-year-old Popeye goes about it in the sanest way. Popeye keeps a journal in which she jots down her astute observations of her mother and sisters and she also tries to explain/understand Terri's anger and mood swings by basing a school project on the history of human rage. Gallant and intelligent, Popeye frequently floats above all the feminine frustration and resentment that keep the rest of her family fully anchored to their house, which still retains ghostly echoes of their absent father.
In all this time -- three years -- Terri hasn't once contacted her husband, not even for legal purposes. This, and the fact that she had gone from devoted wife/mom to drunken witch on permanent rant mode in the space of like, two minutes, is the film's biggest plot hole. Nor does it do Terri any favors. She may be having fun, but after two hours of her company, you just don't want to know her anymore.