Welcome Back, Costner!

At last, we have a winner. The Upside of Anger is an emotional reality check that is profound, laugh-out-loud funny, articulate and shattering. It’s the kind of realistic movie you rarely see on the screen these days, with real people saying truthful things, a script that provides believable situations and still manages to look fresh and offbeat at the same time, and actors who create indelible character portraits that make you care. Joan Allen is superb, as always, but the big surprise is Kevin Costner, who steals the picture with his keenest, wittiest and most sensitive performance in years as a has-been jock who is so dysfunctional it’s a miracle if he doesn’t wear his underwear inside out. He should never play anything but ball players.

Ms. Allen is Terry Wolfmeyer, a strong, sharp, responsible suburban wife and mother whose life somersaults into chaos when her husband disappears without so much as a goodbye note. Knowing he’s fled to Europe with his Swedish secretary doesn’t ease her rage and growing bitterness one bit. Struggling with bills to pay, four demanding teenage daughters to raise and an endless supply of Grey Goose, Terry slowly disintegrates into a frustrated, chain-smoking, vodka-slugging harridan. Then the next-door neighbor, Denny Davies (Kevin Costner)-scruffy slob, former athlete and bogus radio personality-walks in uninvited, perches on the edge of Terry’s bathtub while she takes a shower and hangs around to offer his services. Denny is an unmade bed and Terry has clean sheets. They are both pills. They remind you of the old Chinese proverb: “Confucius say, when the blind lead the blind … they all fall in ditches.”

But they also trade barbs that resonate. “You’re good and pissed-off and bent out of shape!” “I take you seriously. I just don’t think you have much capacity for self-evaluation.” This is not a ha-ha comedy composed of predictable sight gags and rude jokes, but it’s very touching, honest and wry in its bemused observations of human foibles. And the sight of Kevin Costner showing a tiny patch of paunch, losing his hair and scratching his butt while he plays surrogate pal, pop and babe magnet in a house of headstrong women is worth standing in line at the box office.

The four daughters are a finely tuned quartet, each with an agenda and a special way of blaming their mother for everything with a mixture of love and hate. One is a dancer with an eating disorder. Another is a cynical college student. Denny gets the third daughter, a career-driven opportunist, a job as a production assistant at his radio station, where she plunges into an affair with the boss (a goofball with no social skills, played by the film’s writer-director, Mike Binder). While things go from bad to lousy for everyone else, the youngest daughter (the enchanting Evan Rachel Wood, who also narrates the story) tries to catch up with the others, but the boy she picks to love turns out to be gay. Late in the film comes the shocker of what really happened to Daddy. When all is revealed, you don’t know whether to laugh or scream or scratch your head with a befuddled smile. The riveting trajectory of this film centers on the ways these diverse, wisely observed and skillfully delineated people work out their problems in time for an ending that doesn’t pretend to have all of the answers, but entertains you royally while it gets on with the business of getting on. It soars on several levels: a mirrored image of the impact of divorce on five women living in the same house and drifting apart, a study of three years in the life of a middle-aged woman after she thinks everything that can happen has happened already, and a comic look at people clumsily but doggedly starting over. The “upside of anger” is the person you turn out to be after all the pain wears off-newly minted and ready for acceptance, forgiveness and peace.

A lot of the pleasure in this exemplary film comes from the thrill of watching the beautifully nuanced performances come to life. Tangy and focused, Ms. Allen is restless, jumpy and fused with a febrile intensity that shimmers in quickly shifting moods. Matching her energy level, Mr. Costner is robust yet easily wounded, with a mercurial, manly strength that is precise, commanding and vulnerable. As a fading ballplayer who let his life slide into the outfield, he’s flaky, confused and ripe for self-improvement. After Bull Durham, Field of Dreams and now this, it’s clear where his strengths are, but who knew he could be amusing, too? Mr. Binder’s narrative plotting and dialogue never grow shrill or overstated, resulting in a film that remains loyal to human nature and cliché-resistant, despite its sitcom potential. The Upside of Anger feels high on a drug of its own invention, and so will you.

Allen Again!

Too much of a good thing? Joan Allen’s back in Off the Map, a well-intended but weak and plodding art-house pretender directed by Campbell Scott. Ms. Allen doesn’t work that often, so with the glut of junk that is currently choking marquees with overkill, we should probably be grateful for any Joan Allen movie that comes our way. But to open two new Joan Allen movies in the same week smacks of some Hollywood marketing sadist’s idea of how to wreck a great career by pitting two competitive film companies against each other. Critics who like her have only so much to say and limited space to say it in. Meanwhile, Joan Allen fans may suffer from dizziness. Allow me to alleviate the confusion and cut to the chase. If you only have enough time and loose change to see one Joan Allen movie, make The Upside of Anger the priority. She’s fine but wasted in Off the Map, and the movie wafts into a puff of smoke at the halfway mark.

This time she’s the matriarch of a family of eccentrics who remove themselves from conventional society and live in isolation in a desert so remote it’s “off the map,” get it? The reasons why anyone would do an about-face and march into the horizon of simplicity in the sagebrush of New Mexico are manifest, none of them rationally explored here. The mother is an aging flower child who grew up on Leonard Cohen poetry and Joan Baez records. The father (Sam Elliott) is a craggy Marlboro Man reduced by the modern horrors of greed, war and capitalism to such an advanced state of depression that he comes to resemble a catatonic cactus. Their 11-year-old daughter, Bo (Valentina de Angelis), narrates the story like a futuristic Richard ( Red Sky at Morning) Bradford, seeing irony in everything. Miles from the nearest phone, with no electricity, plumbing or running water, Dad stares silently at his dusty boots and weeps a monsoon of tears, Mom hoes her vegetable garden in the nude, and Bo witnesses the epiphany of literary inspiration when the face of Jesus appears on a tortilla in a café in Taos. These are the bare bones, punctuated by yawns.

One day their privacy is invaded by an investigator from the I.R.S., who arrives to audit the tax forms they haven’t filed for seven years. Alas, before he can drag them in on a felony charge, the poor man is stung by bees and falls into a feverish coma. Nursed back to health by Ms. Allen, whose hippie character also happens to be the granddaughter of a Hopi Indian, it’s no wonder he stays for the next eight years, falls in love with the landscape and turns into the next Georgia O’Keeffe. Meanwhile, to stave off a boredom to which the audience is unfortunately not immune, the little girl writes complaint letters to magazine advertisers reporting flawed products, gets free complimentary samples of everything from Kleenex to coffee cakes, and plays with a pet goat named Harry Dean Stanton.

The goal is to establish a literary sensibility that exudes loneliness in the vast outdoors of the changing west of 1974, but Campbell Scott, an actor with style and energy, is a director with no dramatic focus. Too much time is devoted to the child-hunting squirrels with shotguns and bows and arrows, and daydreaming about escaping with the aid of her own personal credit card-and too little on the erratic adults. Off the Map just meanders from one unconventional observation to the next with no tempo at all and, consequently, no impact, either.

Monster’s Ball

You don’t have to go to the movies to learn more about Adolf Hitler: You can just watch the History Channel, which devotes so much time to World War II that the wags give it the motto “All Hitler, all the time.” But pass up the award-winning German film Downfall-an intense, incredibly exciting thriller about the fall of Berlin in 1945-at you own risk. Its scope is epic, creating an awesome authenticity and grandeur around some of history’s most famous monsters that has never been captured on film before. Despite its nearly three-hour length, it also moves like a bullet. At the center, of course, is Adolf Hitler, played with shocking charisma by the great Bruno Ganz. Much of the action involves the comings and goings at his underground bunker while the Russians advanced above, with breathless tracking shots revealing a cavalcade of heroes and villains.

Thesourcematerialis Inside Hitler’s Bunker, Joachim Fest’s landmark historical account of the Der Führer’s last days, and the memoirs of Traudl Junge, Hitler’s secretary from 1942 until his suicide. In fact, the chaos of these times is seen largely through her eyes-those faithful, courageous and naïve eyes that both worshipped and feared their leader. Unlike most films about Hitler, no one is caricatured-even the deluded Eva Braun and the demonic Joseph Goebbels are portrayed as human beings, albeit rather stupid ones. But Ganz’s Hitler is the revelation here. The strange allure of the strutting, screeching thug who appears in Nazi parody films seems out of touch with the man who inspired a nation to madness. Mr. Ganz is the first actor to capture Hitler’s powerful presence, the sway he held over regular Germans and the depth of his convictions, even in his darkest hours. Loving his dog, caressing the children, then dispensing the poison that extinguishes their lives forever, he was as complex as he was insane. Wackos who call the Holocaust a myth will think this movie is a comedy.

Other people are allergic to the idea of anything about the Third Reich, but the evil they perpetrated on the world is mesmerizing to me. From the furnaces of Dachau to Salon Kitty, the notorious cabaret where the Gestapo walked through a secret door and disappeared forever, I have toured every underground setting in the Rhineland that anyone has ever been willing to show me. The year I was on the jury at the Berlin Film Festival, my glamorous friend Hildegard Knef even got me into Rudolf Hess’ cell at Spandau Prison. When the Nazis departed, taking decadence, perversion, mass murder and Sally Bowles with them, I lost all theatrical interest in Berlin-a reason, I guess, why I slept through Democracy. A boring play about a lot of boring old Communists talking their heads off in Willy Brandt’s postwar Germany just ain’t in the same rathskeller with Visconti’s The Damned. Anyway, Downfall director Oliver Hirschbiegel proved three years ago with The Experiment that he could make extremely exciting historical films. Now he’s topped himself with one of the greatest films addressing World War II-and its personalities-ever made.

Welcome Back, Costner!