The new dramedy ''The Upside of Anger" begins at a funeral. Then it suddenly flashes back three years so we can spend the whole movie wondering, ''Who dies?" Writer and director Mike Binder teases us with a few near deaths, but the corpse he produces in the end makes the whole movie and the characters in it look ridiculous.
In the meantime, however, the film's stars, Joan Allen and Kevin Costner, are mighty good distractions.
''Upside" is about wife and mother Terry Wolfmeyer (Allen), her four daughters, and what becomes of their suburban Detroit household when the patriarch runs off to Sweden with his secretary. It's tempting to call the movie ''Diary of a Mad White Woman."
But, abandonment doesn't bring out existential crises, doubts of the self, or a meaningful discussion of what might drive a man from such a cauldron of estrogen. Instead, left high and dry, a functionally drunk Terry pecks away at her girls -- played in descending order of age by Alicia Witt, Keri Russell, Erika Christensen, and Evan Rachel Wood.
Terry's ironclad approach to mothering has no room for error: ''I want the benefit of the doubt at every turn. Are we clear?" She obviously loves her daughters but has no patience for their deviations from her emotionalZIP code. So the girls move, tidally, toward and away from her.
While her daughters embark on life journeys of their own, Terry begins an affair with her neighbor Denny Davies (Costner), a former Major League Baseball star who's now a stoned talk-radio host. Together they have a series of adolescent engagements that, over the movie's three-year span, turn into something credibly adult. Costner and Allen have a classic, lived-in romantic tension between them.
Allen has been here before. When you need a wronged, uptight wife, you wouldn't look anywhere else. She might be the great supporting actress of our times, but in movies such as ''Pleasantville" and ''The Ice Storm," she was never in on the movies' jokes. Carrying ''Upside," her rigid posture, severe demeanor, and clenched, half-soused line delivery make for effective comedy. What once seemed brittle about her now seems steely. You know this woman -- her Mercedes has cut you off on the highway.
Costner is a revelation, like a sunken treasure found. His career has been in the loser bin for more than a decade, just like his character's. A less humble actor would have skipped over Denny's essential goodness to condescend to the character's failure. You can see someone like John Travolta turning him cute or brassy until Denny's beach-bum haze seemed like a shtick rather than an evolved personality. Not Costner: He's very smart and exceptionally likable.
There's a scene where he kicks in a bathroom door and gives Allen a dressing down that reminds you that he's still one of the few stars in the history of the movies who can be persuasively sexy, friendly, and peeved at the same time. Costner's blithely lackadaisical performance promises that the movie won't sink too far into anything dark -- which is both a problem and a mercy. Binder is too facile an observer to get anywhere near the complexities of a house full of women -- instead, Terry is a prickly goddess, and the daughters are an assortment of muses. So Denny emerges as the film'sonly completely realized character.
Binder is a comedian and actor who's best known as the creator and star of HBO's defunct ''The Mind of the Married Man," a one-note show that wanted to do for the straight husband what ''Sex and the City" did for the single woman. It had a weakness for platitudes and ponderousness, a lot of which turns up here, mainly in the narration by Popeye (Wood), the youngest daughter.
Nonetheless, it's the men in ''Upside" who speak all the truth, including Binder, who plays Shep, the producer of Denny's radio show and the middle-aged letch who dates Andy Wolfmeyer (Christensen). After Terry slaps his face twice, he gives her a more bruising earful on why men their age would never want to date an emasculating woman like her. The way Binder has written Terry, it's hard to argue. She's a regally desperate housewife.
Wesley Morris can be reached at email@example.com.