The Upside of Anger
Scott Hardie: “It ruled.”
If Joan Allen brings so much focus and life to bit parts in commercial films, it's no wonder she's capable of carrying an indie movie on her shoulders when the lead role is written specifically for her. Just as the blend of malaise, anger and bemusement fit Kevin Spacey like a glove in "American Beauty," so does this role play precisely to Allen's strengths: A woman betrayed and simmering and unsure of her future and blunt about her needs, while still maintaining the air of elegance and poise that define her. Allen is capable of sharpening her insults with the same ice-cold cruelty as Spacey, and equally capable of suggesting the depths of despair and pride that her self-awareness sometimes brings her, but the movie's poor release date and her lack of a Y chromosome will keep her from getting the Oscar that Spacey won and she deserves. She's one of the best actresses working today, and this film deserves to be seen simply to appreciate the perfect precision of her performance.
There are times when the film is magical, when Costner's jocular supporting character demonstrates casual charm or when one of the daughters' crises brings a moment of pathos to the production. But the gifts of all six primary actors are betrayed by the film's recurring pretentiousness, when it includes scenes that it thinks are artful or whimsical but produce the sensation of your bumper car being hit from behind. Its most egregious example comes when the youngest daughter's gay best friend (already an indie-film red flag) decides to prove he's not scared of bungee jumping, and his attempt sends him crashing through the living room windows; Allen tries in vain to show frustration but the other actors are told to laugh spontaneously at the preciousness of the moment, and you just want to gag at the film shoving its artfulness down your throat. Had a half-dozen scenes like this wound up among their deservedly deleted brethren on the DVD, the rest of the film would have been one of the best of 2005, for the strength and intelligence and clarity it otherwise possesses. Allen's fantasy about the obnoxious radio producer is hilarious, and the third-act plot twist is an unexpected delight, not the shameless cheat that most critics charged. This is a fine film even when it gets in its own way, and it's a must-rent for any lover of good drama or admirer of Joan Allen.