The Upside of Anger is a pleasant surprise, a sprightly comedy with a dramatic aftertaste. Two confident stars, in well-honed performances, drive the narrative: Joan Allen as "a very sad and bitter woman" occasional trapped in comical situations and Kevin Costner as a sort of loser with benefits poised between celebrity and oblivion.
Allen plays Terry Wolfmeyer, the newly single matriarch of four young women (Erika Christensen, Evan Rachel Wood, Keri Russell, and Alicia Witt). Each deals, in her own way, with the abrupt disappearing act of the man of the house. One daughter pursues a new career while sleeping with her boss, another wastes away physically, and so on. Meanwhile, Allen's Terry becomes drinking buddies with Denny Davies (Costner), an ex-baseball star who now hosts a radio talk-show. Costner plays the role in an ingratiating seriocomic vein; the retired pro-baller fits him like an old glove.
Writer-director Mike Binder turns in a funny supporting performance as the producer of Denny's show, but he's even more valuable behind the camera, keeping the potentially overripe story fresh. His best line—"This is the problem with being a deviant—everyone sees you as one-dimensional"—illustrates how the film blends, sometimes uncomfortably, stylization with realism. No one would ever say that line with a straight face, and some of the dramatic proclamations are also overripe, but Costner and Allen expertly ground every syllable.
Allen provides the tough core, delivering lines like the post-coital appraisal "Now that was a real misstep" with withering, pathological conviction. At her self-pitying worst, Terry drinks vodka and watches TV in her robe. When she gets moving again, she has a pathological need to court the anger of her daughters and potential boyfriend Davies. That she's right on the edge all the time has a downside and an upside, as her imagination and hope slowly begin to bloom again.
Though the characters' clear alcoholism never comes to a head, the plot and dialogue can be self-consciously whimsical at times, and a sharp left turn near the end utterly strains reason, The Upside of Anger remains the prickly, ticklish comedy-drama James L. Brooks has forgotten how to make.