By her youngest daughter’s account, suburban middle-aged mother Terry Wolfmeyer is a shell of who she used to be. Since her husband’s disappearance left her to raise her four daughters alone, she’s allowed bitterness, despair and anger to rule her world. She’s also buried herself in alcohol and sex to try to escape the pain. Contributing to her downward spiral is neighbor-turned-drinking-buddy Denny Davies, a former baseball star who would love to shake his retired jock image, but not enough to stop exploiting it every day as a radio talk-show host.
The odd pairing makes for an unapologetically dysfunctional couple; yet Denny is the only person willing to stick around through Terry’s tempestuous moods, and Terry quickly becomes Denny’s hope for happiness. Meanwhile, Terry’s four daughters—Hadley, Emily, Andy and Popeye—each struggle to cope with their mother’s deterioration and their dad's desertion. It’s Little Women for a cynical 21st century audience that knows better than to believe that families love each other unconditionally, everyone marries for love and people live happily ever after.
After it becomes obvious that Terry’s search for relief in a bottle does more harm than good, the estranged wife vows to stop drinking, and she makes a pretty good go of it. She also, eventually, tries to make up for the damage she’s done to each daughter. When Emily gets sick, Terry admits that she doesn’t know how she’d make it without her. (But when Emily voices a desire for her mother to show her more affection and understanding, Terry—true to character—responds by saying Emily just hasn’t been paying attention.)
For all his addictions and immoral intentions, Denny is loyal to Terry, comforting her as she grieves over the destruction of her marriage. When it comes to Terry’s daughters, Denny is just as loyal and protective. He confronts his talk-show producer, Shep, about the man’s sexual relationship with the teenage Andy, apologizing as he does so for not having done it earlier. When the producer treats his involvement with the younger girl as just another excuse to get sex, Denny calls him on the carpet and fires him. The ex-baseball player comforts Emily by dancing with her at a wedding. He also encourages one of Popeye’s friends when the boy’s father seems to belittle him.
Emily states that, despite initially saying so, she doesn’t hate her father. All of the girls band together through their trials, refusing to let circumstances (or their mother) tear them apart.
Marital desertion and infidelity are shown to have devastating ramifications. The vice-like grip rage and resentment can exert on a person is explored at some length. (More on that in the "Conclusion.")
A priest presides over a funeral. Terry uses poorly chosen words to comment about a family not being Jewish.
Terry speaks angrily of her husband “screwing” his secretary, yet easily gives in to a sexual fling of her own, allowing her involvement with Denny to morph from drinking buddy to bed buddy. The ex-jock eventually comes to spend most nights at the Wolfmeyers', and the pair is shown under the sheets on a couple of occasions (no explicit nudity).
Terry’s daughters follow in her footsteps. Her oldest daughter, Hadley, gets pregnant before she’s married. Andy beds Shep, a man twice her age known for manipulating younger women (they’re caught by Terry). And the 15-year-old Popeye offers to sleep with a crush to help him determine if he’s gay or not (they don't follow through).
Innuendoes and double entendres pop up from time to time, but more commonly sex is talked about openly, frankly and coarsely. Terry and Denny go back and forth frequently about it. Hadley jokes about the size of her father’s penis. In bed with Shep (bare shoulders are seen), Andy comments about him getting an erection. Later, Shep apologizes for being “quick,” and Andy reveals that she frequently faked her pleasure.
Twice, Denny sneaks into Terry's bathroom to watch her getting out of the shower. (Audiences see only her shoulders and back; he sees much more.) Andy wears several cleavage-baring tops, as do her mom and Hadley.
Terry slaps Shep, twice, hard across the face. In another scene she imagines his head exploding at the dinner table, sending blood and gore shooting across the room onto the walls and everyone’s faces. Short video clips shown throughout the movie include a car crashing, soldiers firing their weapons during war, people punching and slapping each other, a woman shooting a gun and a nuclear bomb exploding.
Angry at Terry for being so selfish, Denny kicks down a door during an argument. He (mildly) roughs up Denny. Popeye's friend accidentally shatters a house window with his body after bungee jumping from a backyard tree.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Virtually every scene involves alcohol, a substance Terry and Denny deem the answer to every problem for most of the movie. Unapologetic about her need to cope with change by drinking, Terry spends most of her time drowning her despair while trying to smoke her blues away. At Hadley’s graduation dinner, she downs several Bloody Marys. (Hadley, who has already told everyone she's pregnant at this point, also orders one.) At Hadley's wedding, Terry asks for vodka. She’s also shown buying and consuming several bottles of the hard stuff.
Misery loves company. Denny is known as the neighborhood drunk, and whenever he’s not knocking on the Wolfmeyers’ door with a Budweiser in hand, he’s inviting himself in and pouring a glass of hard liquor. Beer bottles clutter his house.
Popeye and her pal smoke marijuana using a bong. Later, he admits to being high while bungee jumping. Twice, Terry asks if Denny is stoned. (He acts like he is both times; he answers yes once).
Other Negative Elements
For every positive found in The Upside of Anger there seems to be an accompanying negative. Terry is fully aware of her destructive vices, yet she repeatedly opts for whatever eases her pain the fastest. Though she admits to hating her inability to control her emotions and regrets lashing out at her daughters, she continues to succumb to her out-of-control feelings. She calls one of her alcoholic outbursts a “public service film against drinking,” yet does nothing to stop herself. And despite recognizing her vulnerability after losing her husband, she agrees to getting sexually involved with Denny. He, on the other hand, justifies their physical relationship by arguing, “It’s not like I’m asking a lot.”
When it comes to parenting, Terry should be no one's role model. She goes to some trouble in her efforts to squelch Emily's dream of being a ballet dancer. (So while Emily is obviously out of line for screaming obscenities at her mother, it’s clear that Terry's not standing on solid ground, either.) She frequently makes unsupportive comments to Hadley. And on separate occasions she discounts Popeye’s often astute opinions by saying, “You’re a child, what do you know?”
Elsewhere, Terry makes an obscene gesture. And she jokes about putting her head in an oven. Shep hires Andy based on her looks, hoping he will get to sleep with her. The girls get graphic as they giggle and carry on about how gross it is that their dog had been munching on a portion of their dinner.
As is the case with recent Oscar contender Sideways, The Upside of Anger puts the spotlight on alcohol, sex and blatant dysfunction. Within the first 10 minutes, we’ve been introduced to affairs, alcohol abuse, drugs, loneliness, depression, parenting bad enough to warrant a guest appearance on Montel, and an overall miserable life. Terry is deeply flawed. She’s overt about covering up her pain and she’s unashamed to show her distress to anyone and everyone. “My life is falling apart now. I’d like some compassion,” she yells at her daughters early in the story. Where does she finally find that compassion? In an off-kilter relationship that just seems wrong from the start.
But there's more to Anger than just managing vice. It somehow transforms itself into a haunting story about ... hope. It's as if the film is a fractured, aging tree trying to weather one more winter so that it can sprout and bloom anew in the spring.
Therein lies the difference between The Upside of Anger and many other recent realist movies that end before they thaw. While Terry and Denny are certainly tragic characters, their resolve to find meaning, purpose and more than just a succession of sorrow-filled breaths is refreshing. By showing their slow and complex transformation, the movie teaches a lesson on how not to live. “Anger and resentment can stop you in your tracks. [They] can mold you into something you’re not,” it concludes. And in the midst of lamenting how far removed Terry has become from her former self, it preaches the value of loving family relationships. Hidden in the dark corners of addiction, despair and mangled relationships are glimmers of goodness that, when realized, are profound.
Denny says in one scene, “There’s not a lot of light here.” He's wrong. There is. The problem is that it's all but obscured.Because for every upside of this thought-provoking story, its harsh content issues remain the unavoidable downside.