Film

DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES

Joan Allen and Sigourney Weaver devour juicy roles as renegade moms

Brian D. Johnson March 28 2005
Film

DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES

Joan Allen and Sigourney Weaver devour juicy roles as renegade moms

Brian D. Johnson March 28 2005

DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES

Film

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

Joan Allen and Sigourney Weaver devour juicy roles as renegade moms

JOAN ALLEN AND Sigourney Weaver seem cut from the same resilient cloth. They’re both tall, thin-lipped women of a certain age. And both have quick, piercing eyes that suggest a guarded intelligence and a reserve of untapped sexual power. The term “high-strung” comes to mind. In films like Nixon, The Crucible and The Contender, Allen has been cast as a shrewd survivor who defends a core of white-hot purity while encircled by deceit. And as the monster-wrangling Ripley in the Alien movies, Weaver patented the role of the avenging sci-fi bitch. These two formidable actresses, who have three Oscar nominations apiece, have made a specialty of portraying brittle, don’t-mess-with-me heroines. But they’ve also co-starred as wildly irresponsible parents in The Ice Storm. And now in their latest work, Allen’s The Upside of Anger and Weaver’s Imaginary Heroes, once again they get to loosen up and flirt with immaturity—as desperate housewives.

If you chart the recent progress of the sitcom—Roseanne, Married... With Children, The Simpsons—the American home has been portrayed as a lopsided matriarchy. The wife is savvy, sensible and long-suffering; the husband is a dolt or a derelict. In The Upside of Anger and Imaginary Heroes, that paradigm is pushed into dramatic overdrive, until it cracks. They sound like they could be the same movie. Both are darkly comic family dramas about acid-tongued, uppermiddle-class suburban mothers who have absent husbands, a brood of wayward children and a bitter aftertaste of abandonment that makes them want to get totally wasted.

I’m not sure if these films qualify as “chick flicks.” Although they offer rich portraits of renegade mothers, which women should relish, both were written and directed by men. And as their heroines become unglued, it’s the male characters who serve up sly, backhanded redemption. Also, both scripts betray their mischievous spirit, and the audience, with forced endings that impose an unearned harmony.

The Upside of Anger is the superior film, and is so smartly entertaining that its faults can be forgiven. Writer-director Mike Binder, who created and starred in the HBO series The Mind of the Married Man, played Allen’s campaign manager in The Contender. He wrote The Upside of Anger specifically for the actress, handing her a role that’s almost unheard of in Hollywood—a sexy, middleaged mom who’s not the object of farce.

Allen plays Terry, the mother of four headstrong daughters in a Detroit suburb whose husband suddenly vanishes, ostensibly to Sweden in the arms of his young Scandinavian assistant. Terry pickles her anger in alcohol, and finds an eager drinking part. ner in the good-natured doofus next door, a retired baseball-star-turned-radio-DJ named Denny (Kevin Costner). Denny slides into the role of surrogate husband and father to her daughters (Erika Christensen, Evan Rachel Wood, Keri Russell and Alicia Witt). But trouble arises when Shep (Binder), Denny’s horndog producer at the radio station, hires and then seduces Terry’s teenaged daughter Andy (Christensen).

As always, Allen delivers a finely calibrated performance, ratcheting up every scene with layers of nuance. But the movie’s big surprise is Costner. I’d given up on this actor. His career seemed washed up, and the notion of casting him as a faded baseball hero seemed almost cruel. But the star of Field of Dreams and Bull Durham pulls it off beautifully. His slouching, sheepish style amounts to a poignant confession that he’s rounded the corner of middle age. Denny’s a goof with a heart of gold. His house is piled with boxes of baseballs, which he autographs for money, but as a DJ he refuses to dine out on his glory days, and won’t even talk about the game. Maybe The Upside of Anger is a guy flick after all. Forget the mad housewife and all those daughters. The lecherous Shep and endearing Denny are the most sharply drawn characters. Sporting a permanent stubble, they stand on opposite sides of midlife crisis: one can’t stop trying to score, and the other is just trying to find home.

Imaginary Heroes concerns another family that falls to pieces after it suffers a loss. Tim (Emile Hirsch), a moody teenager, wakes up one morning to discover that his older brother, a star athlete, has blown his brains out. Their father, Ben (Jeff Daniels), responds by sinking into a catatonic stupor, and serving full meals at the dead brother’s empty place setting. (He, too, hides behind a mask of stubble.) Meanwhile, his wife, Sandy (Weaver), goes on a tear, treating everyone with caustic sarcasm. She also rekindles a mysterious feud with the woman next door, whose druggie son (Ryan Donowho), is exerting a dark influence on Tim.

Oh, yes, she also rediscovers pot. For aging Hollywood dames, acting stoned and stupid seems to be the next best thing to a facelift, and Weaver draws a lot of comic mileage from a couple of joints. There’s a droll interlude where, flattered by an advance from a gawky checkout boy at the supermarket, she tumbles into a wildly inappropriate fling. But the mother-son relationship is at the heart of the story, and Hirsch’s sensitive performance is coiled with emotional intrigue.

The script bears the callow imprint of a hot young writer-director, Dan Harris, who wrote it at the tender age of 22—impressing director Bryan Singer so much that he asked Hams to co-write the blockbusterX-2 (2003). Yet, despite fine performances and edgy material, Imaginary Heroes is too clever by half. Harris’s story crumbles away at the edges, as if he can’t see beyond Tim’s peripheral vision. Daniels struggles with a ludicrous role as the demented dad. And in the end Harris smothers his film’s delicate charm with an oversized plot, punctuated by the inexplicable thud of a happy ending. It’s sad, really. You can see the ragged seams where a young filmmaker has learned to spin personal experience into something synthetic.

FOR AGING Hollywood dames, acting stoned and stupid seems to be the next best thing to a facelift

Harris recently co-scripted Superman Returns and has been writing a year’s worth of Ultimate X-Men comic books. Tales of real imaginary heroes. At this rate he’ll never have to make another movie about messy emotions and messed-up mothers. IJÎl