The well-executed twist ending is a thing of beauty, but a botched or pointless switcheroo can undermine everything that preceded it. Both The Upside of Anger and Dot the I reach for a twist and miss, yet neither movie’s blunder matters all that much. The former film, a domestic dramedy assembled from leftover parts, is underwhelming even before it belly-flops; the latter, an erotic would-be thriller that plays like a failed attempt to simulate ’70s Nicolas Roeg, is clearly cruising for a boneheaded payoff from its very first scene.
Melding sitcom and soap opera in a vain quest for something greater, writer-director-actor Mike Binder’s The Upside of Anger expropriates chunks of Terms of Endearment, Bull Durham, and The Ice Storm, as well as bits of The Virgin Suicides. The film purports to show how an all-female Michigan household survives the disappearance of a never-glimpsed man, husband to Terry Wolfmeyer (Joan Allen) and father to Hadley (Alicia Witt), Andy (Erika Christensen), Emily (Keri Russell), and Popeye (Evan Rachel Wood).
Hadley is in college and Popeye in high school; the other two are apparently somewhere in between. Because the daughters are allotted only one plot point each and the actresses are all somewhat older than the characters they play, it’s hard to place them precisely in the family hierarchy. But then, the four girls exist primarily to witness their mother’s fury at her abandonment and the major byproduct of this indignation, her awkward romance with Denny Davies (Kevin Costner), a former Detroit Tigers star who’s become an eccentric sports-talk-radio host.
When not flirting or feuding with Denny, an amiable slob who first appears pitching a real-estate deal while stoned, Terry chugs mixed drinks and expresses her disapproval of her daughters’ life plans. Hadley intends to get married and have a baby as soon as she graduates, Emily pursues ballet with an intensity (and lack of nourishment) that scares her mom, and Andy skips college for a job at Denny’s radio station—and an affair with his predatory middle-aged producer (Binder). Only Popeye, the film’s occasional narrator, hasn’t yet taken what her mother considers a wrong turn: She spends much of her time in her room, editing a laptop documentary on man’s inhumanity and romancing a classmate who, though all wrong for her, is clearly no threat.
The film begins with a funeral and then flashes back to recount the three years of rage that preceded the burial. The deceased’s identity isn’t revealed in the opening sequence, although it’s not hard to guess. When The Upside of Anger eventually returns to this death, it summons a welter of questions about Binder’s scenario. These objections can’t be cataloged here, lest the movie’s nasty surprise be spoiled, but the fundamental quandary underscored by the ending is present throughout: The Wolfmeyer family lives in a cocoon that, while characteristic of lazy Hollywood melodramas, is altogether unlike real life. Terry and her daughters seem to have no friends, neighbors, or non-nuclear relatives, and thus no one to aid in any way with the central crisis—Dad’s disappearance—or any lesser ones.
To take a minor example, Terry and Emily fight bitterly over the latter’s plan to attend a New Age dance school rather than a mainstream college. Terry has no allies in this fight, but then neither does Emily. She’s apparently become a star dance student without becoming acquainted with a single teacher or adviser who can help her make the case. By comparison, Andy’s situation seems almost idyllic—she’s dating a self-centered sleaze, but at least she has someone.
With its many mundane incidents and establishing shots of changing seasons, The Upside of Anger aspires to weave the fabric of everyday life. But it would probably seem more realistic minus a few subplots and a couple of daughters. After all, the movie’s essence is the contrast between the tidy, bristling Terry and the rumpled, easygoing Denny, which works pretty well as long as Binder doesn’t push it with, say, a mood-busting play to the cheap seats in which Denny finally gets mad and barks that he’s tired of being Terry’s “bitch.”
Allen does, at least, add another dimension to such two-ply dialogue, and Costner rediscovers the affability he sacrificed to go messianic with Field of Dreams and Dances With Wolves. But though their chemistry offsets a lot of dubious schtick, it can’t redeem the film’s overheated finale. When that ruinous twist finally arrives, the only people who have any right to be angry are in the audience.
Yet another slippery tale from that glamorous multiculti city that passes for London in contemporary British movies, Dot the I contrives to entwine three handsome but dopey youngsters: unemployed Brazilian Kit (Gael García Bernal), tiresome upper-class Brit Barnaby (James D’Arcy), and a haunted, hot-tempered Spaniard with the operatic name of Carmen (Natalia Verbeke). Carmen has just agreed to marry Barnaby when she meets Kit, but—with their relationship jump-started by a stranger who insists they kiss—she feels an overwhelming attraction to her new acquaintance. Carmen begins to see Kit while planning her wedding to Barnaby, periodically cooing or raging at each guy. But are there merely two men in her life? An elusive presence appears to be tracking Carmen, and hints are dropped about a jealous lover whose violence forced her to flee Madrid.
Despite the entity lurking in the shadows, writer-director Matthew Parkhill’s debut feature is more cutesy than ominous, and far from naturalistic. The streets look like sets, the camera’s eye leers knowingly, and the skies yield rain whenever it seems thematically apt. Carmen’s own art(ifice) is flamenco dancing; all of the other characters are aspiring actors or filmmakers. Kit videotapes Carmen the first time they meet, at a French restaurant that looks more theatrical than culinary, and video footage from various sources supplements the principal viewpoint (whatever, or whoever’s, that is). Kit is even trailed by two klutzy companions, Tom and Theo (Tom Hardy and Charlie Cox), who seem as much a camera crew as a pair of chums. In this movie, somebody is always putting on a show for someone.
Dot the I is a British-Spanish co-production, and it has nothing unstereotypical to say about either nationality. Barnaby is chilly and manipulative, a latter-day imperialist likely to prove equally dreary whether he turns out to be wimpy or wicked. Carmen is a mercurial rascal, never sexier than when she’s cheating, lying, or stealing. (This character is nearly a reprise of Verbeke’s role in 2003’s The Other Side of the Bed, a Spanish erotic-intrigue musical.) While quite willing to trade on her sensual allure, Carmen insists on earning her own pin money, even though her frequent rages make her all but unemployable. Her brief stints at various McJobs place her on the same economic plane as Kit, who’s shown working as a sidewalk huckster wearing a giant chicken outfit—the animal-costume gig, also used in recent films from Israel and Japan, being a universal symbol of young people’s abject underemployment. Even outside the suit, Kit is a nonentity, his sketchy character defined by the fact that he’s supposed to be Brazilian and thus unable to converse with Carmen in Spanish. The necessity of speaking English is as hard on Bernal as on his character; the Mexican actor, who recently played Che Guevara and one of Almodóvar’s transgender constructs, has never appeared so insubstantial onscreen.
This is a busy little movie, stuffed with cinematic references—Carmen is a “bit Betty Blue”; Kit is advised to “do a Graduate” at Carmen and Barnaby’s wedding—and juiced by a score that ranges from Rachid Taha and Ozomatli to Bentley Rhythm Ace and Fun Lovin’ Criminals. The flick is also outfitted with several endings, including a twist and a sting, as well as a tiny epilogue midway through the final credits. Yet all Dot the I’s incidents and embellishments add up to nothing more coherent than Carmen’s attempt to explain the film’s title. In a rare instance of Parkhill’s dialogue’s getting something right, she concedes that “I guess it doesn’t work in English.”CP