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STARRING: Kevin Costner, Joan Allen, Erika Chistensen, Evan Rachel Wood and Keri Russell

DIRECTOR: Mike Bender

RUNNING TIME: 111 minutes

RATING: R for sex, language and adult content

THE LOWDOWN: The tale of the off-key loves, frustrations and tantrums of some well-off suburbanites.

You're going to have trouble believing this, but it isn't that formidable actress Joan Allen who has the complex and mysterious role in "The Upside of Anger," it's Kevin Costner. Allen plays a fierce, sinewy woman who has been deserted by her husband at the same time that his secretary has, rather notably, gone back home to Sweden.

The deserted wife has four impossibly lovely teen and post-teen daughters and a large suburban home, but at the moment, none of the good things in her life is on her radar. She's so full of rancor that she spends the better part of most days pickled in Grey Goose.

That's the good news. When she isn't under the influence, God help anyone -- a stray daughter, say -- who's in the same room with her. Some mini-rage or other will come shooting out of nowhere, and a daughter who has spent her whole life yearning to be a ballet dancer will find a lifetime of dreams and ambitions dropped nastily on her head. This is a mother who has lost all interest in anyone else in her family being happy or fulfilled.

There's nothing complex about this woman, though, however unpredictable. There's nothing complicated about a grenade, either. You could even, if you've a mind to, use it as a paperweight.

Costner is another matter. He plays a slovenly former major-league ballplayer who happens to live a few houses away. He has got at least a perpetual day's growth of whiskers on his face and a constant can of beer in his hand -- one of many in a daylong series, no matter what the hour. His answer to the sexy explosive device who happens to be his neighbor is to hang around a lot, smile slowly and often and try to nudge her ever so gently into bed. A very good plan, it turns out.

Look a bit more carefully at this funky old ballplayer, though. He usually tries to play the dumb doofus in any conversation -- especially in this house full of female thoroughbreds -- but he is as gifted at heading off a tantrum or buoying up a crushed spirit as a Park Avenue shrink. And yet his own self-loathing (he has a daily radio show where he refuses to discuss baseball) is both total and completely unexplained. This is a deceptively rich character in American movies, expertly drawn, even for a guy who has made a living playing old ballplayers.

And now the best news about the funny, insinuating movie that is "The Upside of Anger": Both Costner and Allen are as good as they have ever been on film. Allen, especially, is vibrant, sexy, scary.

They inhabit these characters so fully that you watch their relationship grow and evolve with nothing but pleasure. This is a very grown-up, civilized movie.

There are things I admire very much about "The Upside of Anger" -- the way, for instance, that little family dramas or jokes are so often resolved in little off-key subtleties and anti-climaxes. Just as in life. This is a film by a man who understands the human species. (Mike Binder, by the way, takes a part. He plays Costner's boss and the ultra-schlocky, inappropriate boyfriend of one of the daughters.)

And then there is this scene that won over my total allegiance, no matter what: The ballplayer has, again, invited himself for dinner. He sits in the dining room across from the woman he has fallen in love with, surrounded, on both sides, by her beautiful daughters, all of them at an age where their emotional needs are about to blossom into fascinating identities. He can't help grinning like an idiot. When asked why the idiot grin, the ex-jock who made his professional life in and out of stinking male locker rooms sucks at his beer and replies, "It's all so -- I don't know -- female."

A perfect mini-portrait of a man who has figured out that, for that very brief moment, anyway, he's in heaven.

A smart and superb movie, this.


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