BOOKS AND ARTS APRIL 11, 2005
The two leading actors in The Upside of Anger are so good that their performances, even more than the story they are in, keep us interested. Kevin Costner, who has played baseball stars, here is an ex-baseball star. His character, Denny Davies, has some resemblance to Jack Nicholson's ex-astronaut in Terms of Endearment: a man who peaked early in fame and income. Denny is now exploiting his past as a radio personality. Drinking fairly steadily with booze as both anesthetic and fuel, pleasant and tolerant, he is faced with the problem of living out the rest of his life. With no dram of self-pity, Denny takes us along with him on his wryly barren way.
Joan Allen is Terry Wolfmeyer, the mother of four daughters, three of them in their teens, one graduating from college. Terry's husband has just left her. This is not a financial bump—she lives in a sleek suburb of Detroit and never worries about money—but the shock shrinks her emotional range. She lives within a narrow spectrum of argument and rage; her rare tender moments seem willed. Allen, as her work in The Crucible and Ethan Frome and as Pat Nixon in Oliver Stone's film made very clear, is an intelligent and sure actress. The role of Terry is tough because of the relatively few colors: Allen knows that careful grading is essential, and she brings it all off flawlessly.
A third major role is Denny's radio producer, Shep Goodman: a fortyish man, clever, who has worked out a rationale for his solipsism. Shep is played by Mike Binder, who directed this film and wrote the screenplay: his acting and directing are better than his writing. The dialogue is snappy enough all along, but as the film progresses we begin to sense television taking over.
Which means we become increasingly aware that, between the beginning and the end of the story, the author is burdened with time that has to be filled. In television we can often see that the writer, worried about the half-hour or hour or whatever it is that must be occupied, scrounges up episodes to fill that space. It is unusual for a television piece, especially a chapter of a series, to have a through line that moves inexorably from start to finish. Binder has been a television writer. Here he had a two-hour space to fill, and we see him somewhat desperately filling it.
Denny and Terry know each other. He doesn't make moves on her after her husband leaves: he simply is present a good deal of the time, drinking (quite a lot) with her, talking. Eventually they do begin an affair, but it is somewhat sporadic. The progress of their affair isn't sufficient stuff for a film, so Binder uses Terry's daughters to fill the space—a desperate illness, a sudden marriage, an attempt at first-time sex, a calculated seduction by an older man. There is also some bungee jumping, including a nighttime accident so gross that it bruises the relatively slick ambience of the film.
But all this patent padding would have some textural interest were it not for a last-minute revelation that makes nonsense of the Terry-Denny story. In his miniaturizing way Binder has been trying to deal perceptively with his people, but the finish smashes everything. It is as if a man who has carefully built a structure adds one last touch that destroys it.
In a way, the collapse of The Upside of Anger matters. The middle class, which is this story's social locus, has become the center of American film—partly because the middle class has enlarged. The working class no longer exists. (When was the last time a politician used the term "working class"? Obviously this means that the men and women who were once proud to be called working class now want to be called middle.) Numerous films—The Ice Storm, American Beauty, We Don't Live Here Anymore are only three of them—have explored, with varying success, this enlarged bourgeoisie, viewing it as the ethical landscape of our lives. Allen and Costner—and Binder the actor--paint in a small corner of that landscape until the film disintegrates.
A fourteen-year-old Israeli boy named Nadav says of his father's funeral: "I wore sunglasses so people couldn't see that I wasn't crying." The complexities behind that remark, attended by other complexities, are the subject of Nina's Tragedies. Written and directed by Savi Gabizon, who teaches film-making at Tel Aviv University, this picture explores a bourgeoisie comparable to the American one that we know, yet markedly different. Two facts differentiate it: the chill of terrorism, lurking just outside the sleek modern homes in a Tel Aviv suburb, and the religious schism. Nadav's mother is a swinging fashion designer; his father is a Hasid. They have divorced, and the boy lives with his mother.
Her sister is the Nina of the title. Nina is an editor at a publishing house, and when her husband is killed by terrorists, her sister sends Nadav to live with her as a comfort. Since Nina is lovely and Nadav is fourteen, he is entranced. After a while, another man enters Nina's life; also some story strands that Nadav has brought with him begin to grow. Gabizon's view of screenwriting is double. In narrative method, much of the picture is more or less what we would have expected in any American picture, yet some of the story spins out in unexpected tangential episodes. Those episodes never seem television padding la Binder: they suggest a fireside storyteller remembering things that he must include in his account.
Gabizon has wit: a wobbly wheel on a funeral bier is good for a chuckle. He has a sense of imminence: one evening, sex is interrupted by news of a death. He has a sense of the caprices of the brain: Nina eventually confesses her shame that she thought the soldier who brought her terrible news, a man called Avinoam, was sexy. Overall Nina's Tragedies is another instance of a subject discussed here lately—a foreign film that is seen one way at home and another way abroad. To Israelis, who have loaded this picture with prizes, it evidently dramatizes the familiar. In this country Gabizon's film has novelty: it brings us a Western quality in Israeli life that is absent from the recurrent stark news.
Ayelet July Zurer is affecting as Nina, Alon Aboutboul is quietly rugged as Avinoam, and Aviv Elkabets fills the bill as Nadav. Gabizon's talent fixes the sophistication-cum-brutality that he is after; and the cinematography by David Gurfinkel, with its illuminating shadows, helps Gabizon greatly.