Off the Map and The Upside of Anger (review)

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Just Desert

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-style stimulation, wishes she were brave enough to indulge in herself, all her own pretensions to nonconformity notwithstanding. Not that it’s an impossible fantasy — I know people really do live like this, off the grid, off the radar, off the map, with no electricity or phone or job, in the middle of nowhere — but I’d miss being connected.
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-year-old daughter, Bo (delightful newcomer Valentina de Angelis). They’re connected to the breathtaking landscape of Taos, New Mexico, where their ramshackle house shares space with sleek coyotes and beautifully spare scrub and magnificent sunsets over the distant mountains and no roads or other people for miles and miles and miles. Arlene tends her garden in the nude, because how could you not want to be naked in such a glorious place? It’s like a desert Garden of Eden, with everything the Grodens need, including each other and their own sense of proud self-reliance.

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-Frost: Affliction), an IRS agent intent on auditing the fiscally sloppy Grodens. Except he really discovers this enchanted place in a way that suddenly deepens everything, and what had been just a nice movie suddenly becomes profound in a way so quietly, subtly earthshattering that, no exaggeration, it may affect how you look at life, may make you realize that you’ve been moving through your own life on unconscious autopilot. William shakes up this little society — which includes Charley’s close friend, the reserved, laconic George (J.K. Simmons: Spider-Man 2, The Ladykillers) — as he himself is shaken, and we come to realize that the changes he is going through are something that the Grodens had already experienced before we met them. It’s through William’s eyes that we understand how Arlene got to the almost supernatural calm she evinces, how Bo finds inspiration for her imagination (she, for instance, likes to conduct imaginary circuses in her pajamas), even, maybe, what brought Charley to the depths of his despair, and what might bring him back again.

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-again, off-again beau, Denny, who’d been calmly tolerant of her general awfulness, finally reacts explosively to her latest histrionics, shocks her into recognizing her own excessive egocentrism. I wanted to applaud, partly because Terry deserved it, and partly because the movie suddenly reminded me, in a roundabout way, of the terrible Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and how this was so not like that film, how that one celebrated as female virtues things like egocentricism and irrationality and bitchiness, and this one has the balls to say, Enough is enough already. But not in any kind of antiwoman way, either — Binder’s genius here is that he takes what, in lesser hands, could have been a soapy “chick flick” melodrama that would appeal only to certain segment of the female populace (and been offensive to the rest of us) and makes it universal. The characters here are so real and genuine and human that Denny’s kicking down the bathroom door to confront a stunned-into-silence Terry is not a “men don’t deserve to be treated by women this way” kind of thing, but a “people don’t deserve to be treated by people this way” kind of thing.

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-aggressive ways, as by cutting off his credit cards, she is unable to directly confront the issue, as by calling the secretary in Sweden (Terry hangs up the phone when someone answers). So she lashes out at everyone around her, not just her daughters but also at their neighbor, Denny Davies, a former baseball hero turned radio DJ. (Mike Binder [Minority Report] also appears in the film, as Denny’s radio producer.) Kevin Costner (Open Range, Dragonfly), with the casual aplomb he has when he’s perfectly cast, plays Denny like Crash Davis 20 years later, a guy who doesn’t think too deeply about too much but feels more than he lets on. Over the months and then years, Terry and Denny tumble into a messy but comfortable relationship, one in which perhaps his patience for her unyielding anger has made it easier for it to endure, to the detriment of all.

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.

Off the Map
viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics
rated PG-13 for nudity and thematic elements
official site | IMDB

The Upside of Anger
viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics
rated R for language, sexual situations, brief comic violence and some drug use
official site | IMDB

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