'Anger' has its ups and downs

Kevin Costner woos Joan Allen in 'The Upside of Anger.'

Mike Binder starred in "The Mind of the Married Man" for HBO, and now he's giving equal time to the married woman. "The Upside of Anger," which was written and directed by Binder, portrays a wife and mother named Terry (Joan Allen), whose life turns sour when her husband vanishes without a moment's notice.

Where did he go and what is he doing? Nobody knows. But then, nobody is thinking very straight. Terry is drinking too much and reflecting too little.

Next-door neighbor Denny (Kevin Costner), a former baseball star, is doing the same. What's more, Terry has four daughters, each facing her own set of challenges.

Will resentments over Dad's disappearance get the best of them? Or will umbrage turn out to have an upside? Binder's screenplay does a reasonably good job of creating a clever narrative arc, culminating in a surprise finale I won't reveal.

What's lacking in "The Upside of Anger" is a steady sense that we're watching real people cope with real, jolting emotions. While it's mildly interesting to watch the characters grow and mature, I rarely felt pulled into their problems as I do in the best family dramas - like the current "Imaginary Heroes," which takes a tougher, tighter look at suburban family angst.

In some ways, "The Upside of Anger" reminds me of "Terms of Endearment," the 1983 hit that also features mother-daughter dynamics and a next-door neighbor subplot. I recall a critic who agreed that "Terms of Endearment" is less realistic than it ought to be, noting that hardly anyone today would have a nickname like Flap, as Jeff Daniels's character is called.

Well, does any young woman you know have a nickname like Popeye, as Terry's youngest daughter is called? I doubt it - and I suspect Binder borrowed this trick from the earlier film, since it makes no sense on its own terms. Popeye is played by Evan Rachel Wood, whose appealing eyes do anything but pop!

Ms. Wood does her best with the material, as do Allen and Costner. It takes more than good acting to make a good movie, though. Good writing helps, and there's not enough of that here.

Rated R; contains vulgarity.

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