Writer-director Mike Binder has apparently seen “Terms of Endearment” too many times and loves it entirely too much. His film “The Upside of Anger” is essentially a long series of variations on James L. Brooks’ 1983 Oscar-winner. It’s blessed with a fine cast and has been generally well-made, but it still comes across like reheated leftovers, which are never quite as tasty as the original serving.
Consider these striking similarities. The main protagonist in each case is an acerbic, strong-willed middle-aged single mother–here Terry Wolfmeyer (Joan Allen), who’s just lost her husband, who she believes has run off to Europe with his young secretary. Like Aurora Greenway, the woman has other familial troubles: indeed, she has four daughters rather than just one, which allows Binder to spread the “Terms” domestic difficulties around rather than concentrate them on one girl. Like Aurora, Terry has to deal with a daughter’s relationship with a man she doesn’t really approve of. But in this matter Binder does Brooks one better: Terry isn’t troubled just by her oldest daughter Hadley’s (Alicia Witt) decision to wed a lightweight classmate (Tom Harper), but even more by her younger daughter Andy (Erika Christensen), who chooses not to go to college and instead takes a job at a radio station, where she takes up with a producer, a lascivious middle-aged Lothario, Shep (writer-director Binder). That job has been secured for Andy by Terry’s neighbor, a dissolute ladies’ man named Denny (Kevin Costner). No, Denny isn’t an ex-astronaut like Jack Nicholson’s Garrett Breedlove, but he’s not far from that kind of fallen hero–he’s an erstwhile major league baseball player who now spends his time rambling on as a talkshow host, drinking heavily and bedding whatever females come within range; and he and Terry will inevitably find their way into each other’s beds. Terry will also be burdened in having to deal with a daughter’s serious illness–not Hadley or Andy, but Emily (Keri Russell), whose desire to study ballet her mother dismisses as egocentric nonsense. To round our the quartet of siblings, there’s the unfortunately-named Popeye (Evan Rachel Wood), a girl who’s putting together a computer-based political manifesto (on equipment that looks a mite advanced for the time frame, this being–I think–a period piece of sorts). Binder has run out of Brooksian crises, so she’s given a new one, trying to develop a romantic relationship with a handsome young classmate who turns out to be gay, and thus but a platonic friend. This subplot, it must be noted, seems entirely extraneous, even if it does provide a few moments of contrived comic relief from the heavier goings-in elsewhere.
The upshot of all this is that if you love the mixture of humor and domestic drama served up in “Terms of Endearment” as much as Binder apparently does, you may find that the similarity of this movie to it has an upside of its own. But you might, on the other hand, believe that there’s entirely too much imitation on display here. And it isn’t limited to Brooks’ film: Costner’s character, for example, will certainly call to mind not only Breedlove but Bull Durham, too (as well as the actor’s over-the-hill golfer in “Tip Cup”). That doesn’t mean that “The Upside of Anger” is without crowd-pleasing elements. It has plenty of moments that work fine on a fairly rudimentary level–the unlikely pairing of the sharp-tongued woman and the rumpled but stubbornly endearing ex-jock generates lots of amusement, and if one sets aside the question of Andy’s age, the laughably inept girl-chasing of the scummy Shep is sure to draw chuckles, especially since he’s bound to get his comeuppance. But the material involving older daughters Hadley and Emily doesn’t come off nearly as well–indeed, the scene in which Terry first encounters Hadley’s hubby-to-be’s family is embarrassing in too many ways, and the entire subplot about Emily’s illness has an extraneous quality that Russell never overcomes. Meanwhile Popeye’s puppy-love interludes reek of sitcom sentiment, and the narration she offers (seemingly an obligatory element in movies nowadays) doesn’t transcend the cutesy. Even more problematic is the twist the script takes at the close to provide a surprise turn for the funeral the picture opens with. Frankly, the surprise Binder comes up with is not only a cheap dramatic stunt, one that strains credulity past the breaking point, but it makes one wonder about the rationality of all the Wolfmeyer family’s previously-recorded actions and decisions, especially Terry’s. If nothing else, she comes off looking like an utterly impractical person, if not a recklessly negligent one.
Still, the quality of the performances helps to put the material across even at its weakest. Allen manages, as Shirley MacLaine did in “Endearment,” to give an essentially grating character sufficient shading to make her sympathetic–a considerable feat–and Costner abandons his frequent pose of stiff, pompous propriety in favor of a audience-pleasing turn as a slightly grubby but charming rogue. The younger actresses aren’t in the same league, but all of them–especially Christensen–more than get by, and Binder is bound to earn equal amounts of scorn and laughter as the clueless, libidinous Shep. The production has the burnished look of the high-toned melodramas it mimics–the design by Chris Roope and art direction by Tim Stevenson recreate the upscale suburban milieu well, and Richard Greatrex’s cinematography captures it expertly–but the score from Alexandre Desplat isn’t up to his standard; it’s surprisingly ordinary, which is hardly what he usually offers.
For audiences that like the serio-comic combination that Larry McMurtry’s novel provided in Brooks’ find, Binder’s virtual homage may afford considerable pleasure. But it should be remembered that “The Evening Star” demonstrated conclusively that we didn’t need a sequel to the 1983 picture, and though “The Upside of Anger” is more skillfully made than that 1996 miscalculation was, one has to wonder whether we require an affectionate but obvious copy of it, either. The mixture of sitcom and soap opera that worked in “Terms of Endearment” feels stale here, especially since the final-reel revelation is more cheat than treat.