There are no plastic bags floating around transcendently, but The Upside Of Anger, a dark suburban comedy leavened by the promise of arty redemption, might as well be called Son Of American Beauty. All the familiar signposts are in place: The deadpan voiceover issues ironic commentary, tense conversations dissolve into mirthless laughing fits, middle-aged adults regress into adolescent boozing and sex, and their grown children, seething with resentment, seek their own wayward avenues to happiness. Clearly, the cul-de-sacs of upper-middle-class America have not gotten any less troubled in recent years. But writer-director Mike Binder has a trump card in Joan Allen, whose performance as a jilted housewife who takes to the bottle recalls Elizabeth Taylor in Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?, but with the brittle reserve that's become Allen's stock in trade.
Still reeling from the sudden departure of her husband, whom she suspects ran off with his Swedish secretary, Allen sinks into depression and subsists on a steady diet of vodka tonics, much to the consternation of her four beautiful, self-sufficient daughters. Allen's ingratiating neighbor Kevin Costner, a grizzled ex-baseball hero who's also drowning himself in suds, prods her into being his drinking buddy, and their tenuous friendship grows more intimate. Meanwhile, Allen's daughters are all off doing something to deepen her rage: Erika Christensen skips college to intern with the skirt-chasing producer of Costner's local radio show, Keri Russell favors ballet over more practical pursuits, Alicia Witt keeps her collegiate romance a secret, and the youngest, Evan Rachel Wood, aggressively courts a sweet boy whom she hopes will be her first love. As her situation deteriorates, Allen loosens her tongue and stings everyone with a withering honesty that her once-sweet self could never have mustered.
So long as the tone stays mean and unpredictable, The Upside Of Anger has a coarse edge that's rare for mainstream cinema, helped along by the offbeat rapport between Allen and Costner, whose wonderfully loose-limbed performance stays within his limited range. But when Binder tries to attach some thematic import to the proceedings—the explanation of that awful title is a particular eye-roller—there's not much substance to support it. The individual adventures of Allen's daughters amount to little more than garden-variety domestic crises, and her "Hell hath no fury" wrath isn't quite worthy of Medea. The film's outsized ambitions are deceptive: Everything here is less than meets the eye.