The Upside of Anger + Off the Map

There is no upside to The Upside of Anger: Joan Allen in the mirror (Photo courtesy of New Line Cinema)

The Upside of Anger, a wretched film that has all the charm of a drive-by shooting, establishes itself as infantile pabulum from the get-go.

It opens with a funeral in the rain: the picturesque tops of black umbrellas compete with the bland voiceover of a teenage girl’s uninflected, weightless chattering about her displeasure with her mother, whom we observe in mourning at the graveside.

Then a screen title appears: “Three years earlier.” So we wait for a death. The movie plays peek-a-boo with this expectation, including a cancer scare, a Bungee-jump scare, and other exploitative conventions.

Mostly, for 1 hour and 55 minutes, there is Joan Allen . . . overacting shamelessly in a poorly written, senseless part. As a drunken, tossed away trophy wife who lives in a large, unattractive suburban house, Allen staggers through the film in ruined goddess mode. She and the four young actresses who play her daughters spout stilted dialogue that sounds as if it were meant to be ineffably snappy, yet the tone is way off. Heavily textured cadences envelop every vulgar, trite cliché. The women speak in sitcom zingers that fall in dead silence.

Allen’s husband has apparently left her for his secretary, and she and fellow alcoholic suburbanite Kevin Costner soon have cute encounters of the Something’s Gotta Give-kind. Costner, steeped in Nicholsonian rakishness as a washed-up baseball player, catches Allen clad in her bath towel, fresh from the shower. Yet the muddle-headed Mike Binder, who wrote and directed this trash, and who also acts in a moderately large supporting role in the film (he bombs on all three counts) cannot even rise to the level of Nancy Meyers.

Cartoonish bitchiness isn’t Joan Allen’s métier—at all. Binder misdirects her to be vampish and breathy. And you watch the actress strain to propel the frantic pace of this empty machine.

Visually, The Upside of Anger is nothing: an august brown catastrophe, with too damn many close-ups.

As to be expected in something this false, the movie hates nature. Or worse, the filmmaker and his idiot characters are indifferent to nature. Even when someone comments on losing the view of the woodlands that surround the family home, no one registers as giving a damn about what “developing” the property really means. Does Binder expect a movie audience in 2005 to believe that out of the four high school and college age women who populate these grounds, not one of them has passionate feelings or opinions about the sacrifice of the forest to still more suburban houses?

The Upside of Anger may sound like an innocuous failed comedy, but Binder makes it into something more deleterious. As Shep, a radio producer, a stubble-bearded, handlebar mustachioed, oversexed troll of a man, the physically ugly Binder gives a performance on par with his writing and directing, both of which might generously be called moronic and grotesque. In one scene, after Allen discovers Shep in bed with one of her daughters, the women and their respective boyfriends gather at the dinner table, and there’s a burst of supposedly comic violence, a repugnant, gory, gross-out that lets you know where Binder’s sensibility actually lies—in the gutter. Allen fantasizes about Shep’s body exploding, his blood splattering everywhere.

For a violent joke such as this to work, either one of two elements would have to be in place. The rest of us would have to hate Shep as much as Allen does, to share in her sense of retribution. But there isn’t an iota in pleasure in seeing this hideous buffoon destroyed. Or his annihilation should be portrayed as a savagely affectionate send-up, something akin to Dan Ackroyd’s legendary Julia Child parody. Lacking both the capacity for indignation and wit, Binder can only give us something bloody and bloody awful. Summing up: there’s a spot reserved for Upside on my 10-worst list for 2005.

No miracle in New Mexico: Campbell Scott directs Off the Map (Holedigger Studios)

Because the Lord Above wanted me to have an extra special week, S/He arranged for not one but two execrably bad Joan Allen movies. Off The Map isn’t as vile as The Upside of Anger: it doesn’t give Allen the same opportunity to be obnoxious; nonetheless, this movie, which has occupied shelf space in someone’s vault for the last two years, deserves irretrievable relegation Off the Face of the Earth.

The playwright Joan Ackermann adapted the script from her own stage work, and the movie feels like a play. More precisely, Off the Map suggests origin from a sensibility uncluttered by original thought. Ackermann’s “craft” borrows from the predictably punctuated pandemonium of Kaufman and Hart, filtered through the coarse strains of such deep-fried no-talents as Robert Harling and Beth Henley.

Ostensibly the story of the Grodens, an earthy hippie family living in an adobe eco-shack amidst the mountain ridges outside Taos, New Mexico, Ackermann’s contraption consists of strung together insults absent of insight into human behavior. (She also loves plot devices that go nowhere.) A typical scene: the taciturn, clinically depressed father (Sam Elliott) sits on the porch in the middle of the night with a youngish IRS employee, who has come to audit taxes but instead—in the bad play tradition of “zany” supporting characters whose foibles are meant to make us laugh and cry—ends up staying for eight years, taking up residence in an old yellow school bus that’s been painted blue. The taxman (played by Jim True-Frost, a welfare recipient’s Sean Penn) delivers a self-mocking monologue about his mother’s suicide. The would-be auditor begins to sob, and his withdrawn host offers him an ancient telescope as a gift. Ackermann, in this scene and others, strives to capture the essence of late night, soul-baring conversations. Yet the writer is an idiot. Having no idea how to portray human thought or speech, she makes her caricatures objects of ridicule at the same time that she expects us to empathize with them. I can’t conceive what kind of audience she’s writing for, other than paranoid schizophrenics. The whole thing is “cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs,” in the parlance of Igby Goes Down. If nothing else, True-Frost manages a bit of alchemy: he recites his wooden dialogue in a leaden manner, and even elicits something close to a chuckle when the auditor admits to having been a short-order cook who “recently made a career switch.”

Most of Off the Map belongs to the revolting child actress Valentina de Angelis. She plays Bo, the home-schooled daughter of Elliott and Allen; she narrates the film in a shrill, smug, precociously “wise” voice-over, and she prattles incessantly. I wanted to slap her; the movie, of course, intends Bo, who sports braided pigtails of chestnut brown, an awfully masculine dimple in her chin, and who likes to call herself “Cecilia Rose,” to be adorable.

The estimable actor Campbell Scott takes directorial credit for this fiasco, a far cry from his exceptional Big Night, co-directed with Stanley Tucci in 1996. Visually, spatially, he opens the film up, and the integrity of the rugged landscape, though not well photographed, occasionally slices through Ackermann’s tawdry, dishonest bullshit. Scott can do nothing to redeem that. He could have at least cut the early scene where Allen walks into the family cabin, announcing, “Hey, look what I found at the dump!” She squeezes a few notes from a trashed accordion. Later, the mother, who’s given to gardening in the nude, will ask the IRS auditor if he plays the accordion. He says no, and that’s the last we ever hear of the little squeezebox.

The only signs of intelligent life in this production are: a coyote that sometimes prowls the pea patch when stalking rabbits; and an Afro-sporting deliveryman who asks the Taos Family Groden and their permanent guest if they are all on mushrooms. Oh, there are some haunting watercolors by Stan Berning on display, better seen at his website than in Off the Map. – NPT

March 10, 2005