It’s rare enough, so when it happens, you have to cling to it and not let go: Some movies just fill you up so much with life and love and art and feeling and awe at the world and all the crazy, wonderful people in it that you simply have to burst into tears at the end of it, not because it’s sad but because it’s perfect. Just perfect. And all that emotion has to go somewhere, and at least for me, that means busting out in sobs like I did at the end of Off the Map, sobs that I can’t even really explain or justify except to say that even though the movie comes to a logical, natural conclusion, I never wanted it to end, wanted to just crawl into the warm, comfortable lap of the movie and stay there forever.
Maybe that’s because the film depicts one of those fantasies of nonconformity that this citified gal, who craves constant city-
Of course, there’s a different kind of connectivity to the Grodens — Arlene (Joan Allen: The Bourne Supremacy, The Contender); her husband, Charley (Sam Elliott: Hulk); and their 11-
Which isn’t to say that there’s anything idealized about their lives. No, there’s a lot of poignancy and pain and confusion about what It (life, the universe, etc.) all means, just like everyone experiences no matter where they are… only here, in this sere, lonely place, it’s like the unimportant extraneous details have been stripped away, leaving just the pure emotional experience of it. So Charley’s deep, inexplicable depression, which he’s mired in as the movie opens early in this one fateful 1970s summer, can manifest itself in his unrelenting silence — he doesn’t speak — and frequent, silent tears. (Elliott is an impressive presence, even without the use of his commanding voice, and also a vulnerable one like I’ve never seen him be before.) And Arlene can simply wipe his tears away offhandedly and tell him about her day and what’s for dinner, and Bo can continue teasing him as we sense she’s always done… or maybe she’s filling the void left by the absence of his fatherly teasing.
It could have all been mere quirk and circumstance — if such passionately and touchingly performed quirk as you’d expect from the likes of Elliott, and Allen, who finds a groundedness for Arlene that’s both earthy and ethereal — if not for the arrival of William Gibbs (Jim True-
Director Campbell Scott (Final) and screenwriter Joan Ackermann (adapting her own play), make all the right choices, find exactly the right path through a story that is not as simple as it first appears, and through characters that are more complicated than you can imagine at first. When the adult Bo (Amy Brenneman), for whom the story occurs as a flashback, returns to Taos for a visit with her parents at the end of the film, it complete such a satisfying full circle that you can’t imagine it being any more perfect than it already is.
Don’t get mad
Joan Allen’s upscale suburban housewife Terry Wolfmeyer, in The Upside of Anger, is the diametric opposite of Arlene Groden: she’s bitter, snide, unable to cope with emotional upheaval, given to tantrums, impossible to live with. Terry gave up her dreams (she wanted to be a poet) in order to get herself into the position she’s now in, where she can try to force her daughters to give up their dreams to instead follow a prescripted, conformist path through life. Though she despairs when they take this path, too.
Terry is a mess, and hard to like, but she’s fascinating, and to watch Allen portray these very different characters, Terry and Arlene, in rapid succession (both films opened on the same day, at least in New York) is to watch one of the finest, most artistically dedicated actresses working today blaze her own unique path through an industry that typically wants nothing to do with a woman over 35. Hooray for Allen — she’s my hero.
And hooray for Mike Binder, who wrote and directed this marvelous film, which finds acrid humor in the blackness of unrelenting fury while never letting its characters be less than fully human, even if that means that once in a while, they warrant a smack to remind them that they’re not, in fact, the center of the universe. And by “they” I mean Terry, of course. There’s one perfect little scene that brilliantly encapsulates everything that’s exactly right about Upside, and it comes at a moment in which, frankly, the selfish bitchiness that Terry’s wallowing in anger has become has gotten to the point where she’s just intolerable. And so her on-
But I’m way ahead of myself.
See, as the film opens, Terry has been abandoned by her husband, leaving her with four grown or nearly grown daughters — played by the delightful gaggle of Erika Christensen (The Perfect Score, The Banger Sisters), Evan Rachel Wood (The Missing, Thirteen), Alicia Witt (Two Weeks Notice), and Keri Russell. The husband has gone off to Sweden, Terry believes, has run away with his Swedish secretary, taking nothing but his wallet, and though Terry can react in passive-
How that kind of abiding bitterness eats away at your soul is the undercurrent of Binder’s tale, how it undercuts even moments of joy, becomes all that your life is about, and to no avail. It changes nothing, certainly not the reason for the anger, except your own self, and in no good way. I’ve never seen a film deal with slow, gnawing emotion in such an ultimately devastating way. Don’t miss this one… particularly if you recognize Terry’s impasse in a personal way. You may find the film highly cathartic.