Monday, March 28, 2005

The Upside of Anger

Watching the movie The Upside of Anger, I wondered how this script got produced—the script has potential and offers a wonderfully meaty role for Joan Allen (which she ate right up). Yet so much of the script seems unfinished, half done, or just glossed over. Then I realized that Mike Binder not only wrote, directed, and played a role in the film, but also that his brother Jack Binder produced the movie. So he’s either well connected or darn driven.

Difficulty #1: the film revolves around a mother and her FOUR daughters. Yikes, that’s a lot of daughters: the run time of the film simply doesn’t allow a thorough exploration of each daughter’s character. Instead every daughter comes off as generic and unrealistic. Unlike the film, I do have time to look at each daughter individually (don’t worry, I’ll get to Joan Allen’s character soon enough).

Emily Wolfmeyer, played by Keri Russell (to the delight of Felicity fans everywhere), wants to be a dancer but her mother Terry does not approve. Emily proposes a conservatory type program, but her mother balks. Apparently Terry acknowledges the pursuit of higher education only at big state schools. Here’s the kicker—we know little about mom Terry’s background (like, did she go to an accredited university? Did she ever, oh, I don’t know, hold a job??). It is like this story is told from a child’s perspective: mom says no just to be contrary and mean and doesn’t seem to have valid reasons for it.

Binder barely reveals the result of this fight; we see a road sign that indicates Terry is driving to the University of Madison to visit Emily in the hospital. So I guess Terry forced Emily to go to a liberal arts college rather than a conservatory? Another issue between Emily and Terry treated similarly—used to create tension but then dropped without follow through—is Emily’s supposed eating disorder. Though her refusal to eat is casually referenced throughout the film, Terry and the doctors fail to consider this as a cause of Emily’s illness. Rather she suffers from a very vague disorder encouraged by “stress.” Why opt for an ambiguous illness when you have already introduced a perfectly viable, socially relevant, and character-specific illness early on, Mr. Binder?

Erika Christensen, a luscious blonde who reminds me of a curvier Julia Stiles, plays Andy Wolfmeyer, the daughter who refuses to go to college…for no apparent reason but that she just doesn’t wanna. So instead she gets a job as a production assistant—not by applying for the job, mind you, but rather because her Mom’s boyfriend makes the arrangements himself—and then she only gets an interview because she’s hot. Andy proceeds to sleep with her boss and subsequently become the producer of a morning radio show. Wow. There is a model for young girls: how to rise up the ladder of success horizontally.

Seemingly, it never occurs to Andy that sleeping with her boss Shep is a bad idea, nor do we ever learn what she likes about him. Her mother treats Shep terribly, but Andy never confronts her, hence a missed opportunity for us to learn more about her motivation: either, “but Mommy, I love him!” or “Good, I’m glad you hate him. That’s the point.” Nor do we ever see Andy at work, except through conversations with her boss, Shep. Is she good at her job? Do her co-workers appreciate her or just ogle her? Are we to believe that her affair with Shep led to her promotion, and that this is a good thing?

Hadley Wolfmeyer, portrayed by Alicia Witt, is the eldest daughter who graduates college, only to inform her mother that she has a boyfriend, is knocked up, and is getting married. Again, the daughter in question does not elaborate why she is making these choices—rather, the daughter choosing motherhood gives a nod to non-traditional feminism (it is okay to want to stay home) and provides conflict without depth.

Much in the script indicates that Terry’s most difficult relationship is with Hadley, and we see one brief scene when Hadley returns to college that reinforces this assessment. Binder’s dialogue here is stilted, halting, with the situation quickly resolved/brushed under the carpet to move on to the next scene. He seems really uncomfortable with the layered writing necessary in this scene. Most of the fight scenes start well but then wander as Binder struggles to determine how women might resolve a fight scene. The good news is that he doesn’t create easy solutions. The bad news is that he creates no solutions.

Binder excels at infusing the film with drama, but he fails to explore the potential within these situations. As with all the daughters, Hadley’s problems with her mother operate as a footnote rather than a motivation for action. Terry gets drunk at a celebratory lunch for Hadley and her fiancé, but the only fallout is between Terry and herself. Next we see Hadley, she and the fiancé are dining with Terry, seemingly without tension. How did Hadley feel about her mother’s embarrassing behavior? Did she and her fiancé fight about it? Is she hurt by her mother’s failure to embrace her pregnancy and marriage? Did she plan the pregnancy, consider abortion, panic at all?

Finally, our narrator, called Popeye, is played by the wonderful and subtle Evan Rachel Wood. She begins the film by describing her upset towards her mother, a woman that used to be so sweet but now is simply angry—a promising start. The film then flashes back to show us when Terry became so angry. I kept waiting for the promised confrontation between Popeye and her mother. Nope. Never happens. Of all the daughters, Popeye has the least amount of screen time with Terry. Then why choose her as the narrator?

But this movie isn’t about the daughters, after all. Terry’s character is beautifully drawn, incredibly complicated and contradictory (in a good way), and vulnerable. She has flaws in abundance and yet we like her. And she is able to find Grey Goose for only $20 (why can’t I do that?).

Abandoned by her husband, Terry embraces her anger—she refuses to dress, drinks all day, and says exactly what she is thinking when she is thinking it. In some ways, this embracing of anger is heroic and admirable—feminist theoretical writings often point out how female anger tends to be appropriated by men. Think back to wronged women of film/literature past and consider whether a man ever stepped in to exact justice, to right the wrong, or to give her a new life by accepting her.

So what then are the implications (SPOILER alert) of the fact that the plot ultimately undermines Terry’s reason for anger: her husband did not leave her. He in fact fell in an old well in the backyard and died, only to be discovered a year or so later by a construction crew. I could not help but wonder—if Terry had not jumped to the conclusion that her husband left her, might she have initiated a search and found her husband wounded but not yet dead? This is a pretty damning thought—Terry’s irrational (apparently) assumption that her husband had left her for his secretary and her subsequent refusal to contact him might have led to the death of a completely innocent man. In this light, is Binder condemning female anger as paranoid and extreme?

The most problematic aspect of Terry’s character is that the narrator tells us how sweet she once was, but the Binder fails to show us this kinder, gentler Terry. Note the contrast between the two personas (a Stepford-wife type pleasing gal versus a pissed off banshee—gosh, can Terry win here with either stereotypical categorization?). The film begins with anger, and ultimately, I think the script intends to validate her anger—because the journey itself was worthwhile. If Binder offered us a contrast between the Terry of the past and the new post-anger Terry, we might really learn something about the upside of anger because we’d see what she lost and what she gained in the struggle.

Terry finds love with neighbor Denny (boy is it great to see Kevin Costner play a schlub).
Denny and Terry share many things besides the fact that their names rhyme: alcoholism, depression, a feeling of uselessness. Yet more to the point, perhaps, both are deeply ingrained within the suburban lifestyle and mindset. This is one of those movies where you watch these characters who don’t have to worry about money and live in enormous houses—yet somehow the audience is supposed to empathize with these privileged, ungrateful people. There are occasional references to Terry’s financial status, so the idea is not completely overlooked, but these issues are glossed over and thrown in at random for effect rather than impact.

There is much to admire and ponder in this film, as should be obvious by the fact that this review is so long: clearly the film affected me. Yet much more is downplayed, obscured, and overlooked. The script simply doesn’t feel finished: it wanders from storyline to storyline with Terry’s anger alone connecting the dots. Despite a bravura performance by Ms. Allen (a performance that makes the film worth seeing in itself), writer/director Binder knows enough about women to cause a ripple but not enough to take a journey beneath the surface to discover an entire world under the water.

(Sorry, can’t let that metaphor go without an apology—but have you noticed how many film reviewers love overwritten metaphors? Couldn’t help myself.)


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