Horem pádem (a.k.a. Loop the Loop)
starring Petr Forman, Emília Vásáryová, Jan Tríska, Ingrid Timková
screenplay by Jan Hrebejk & Petr Jarchovský
directed by Jan Hrebejk
THE UPSIDE OF ANGER
starring Joan Allen, Kevin Costner, Erika Christensen, Evan Rachel Wood
written and directed by Mike Binder
by Walter Chaw Packed to the gills with what ails Czech life, Jan Hrebejk's Up and Down (Horem pádem) is a roundelay of social dysfunction, encompassing in 108 frantic minutes what feels like everything that's gone wrong with the Republic in the last twenty years. Illegal immigration and the racism attendant to it, social groups morphing into organized hate groups, the disintegration of traditional bonds, organized crime, white slavery--all of it is tossed into a loud, anxious bundle and presented as a confused overview of the hell of modern life. Begin with a Muslim child accidentally abandoned by one of a truckload of smuggled aliens and continue into the story of poor simpleton Franta (Jiri Machacek) and his baby-crazy wife, Mila (Natasa Burger), who together channel the conflict of Raising Arizona. Then there's an old professor (Jan Tríska) trying to win a divorce from his long-estranged wife (Emilia Vasaryova) so that he can marry his long-time girlfriend (Igrid Timkova), and the whole thing climaxes with something like a wagged finger, with the professor's expat son (Petr Forman) bucking the reactionary provincialism of his homeland by revealing an aboriginal wife and a mulatto son.
At its most unpleasant, Up and Down sort of vacillates between being really nasty and being very pleased with itself. I'm a little suspicious of its intentions, truth be known, because while on the one hand any film with the courage to venture off the path into the thicket of undecorated unrest deserves the benefit of doubt, Hrebejk's wryness can feel like insouciance. He takes too much pleasure in seeing his plan come together, punishing his most sympathetic character (Franta) with a cosmic hammer while rewarding the smug son (Forman) with the film's atonal epilogue. Consider Franta, burdened with a cleft palette as well as a jail record that keeps him from fulfilling his ambition to be a police officer: By the end of the film, he's victimized by his law enforcement idols, reduced to becoming a bouncer at a ramshackle brothel and seen asking for re-assimilation into the embrace of the thugs who set him on the road to ruin in the first place. His plight could be an illustration of where the disenfranchised working class comes from, but the argument is circular as he ends up where his troubles began. While there's something to be said for a film that punishes its Job, Up and Down does it with a sort of arch relish that leaves the point of view of the piece a little muddy when the rest of the jabs require that its solution be equally razor sharp.
Social commentary of a slightly different kind, Mike Binder's The Upside of Anger is the sort of upper class dysfunction opera that's fallen on hard times (The Safety of Objects, Fallen Angels, A Home At The End of the World, Imaginary Heroes) since the glory days of American Beauty and The Ice Storm, finding itself rejuvenated after a fashion in the smart, warm performances of Joan Allen and Kevin Costner. Costner is perfect as an aging baseball player living in a beautiful neighbourhood by selling boxes of signed baseballs and assiduously not discussing baseball on local talk radio, while Allen is transcendent as a woman who believes that her husband's run off with his Swedish secretary, sinking into alcoholism and great droughts of bitterness. The screenplay splits time between incisiveness and sap, loading, as films like this tend to, too many subplots and emotional cataclysms onto the plate in an effort to give equal time to each of its eight major characters (Costner's, Allen's, Allen's four daughters (Erika Christensen, Evan Rachel Wood, Keri Russell, Alicia Witt), and two of the daughters' boyfriends). Better to shave a few daughters off the front and back, methinks, or, Something's Gotta Give-like, just to focus on the geezers.
So although the Costner/Allen relationship gains a cozy lustre, the girls become pastiches: the one vying for her mother's love by not eating enough; the one with the wrong boyfriend; the one with the secret boyfriend; and the one keeping a journal upon which the film is ultimately based. They're what's lock-step about the thing, and, consequently, what's wrong with it. (That and the score by Alexandre Desplat (whose work I've liked in the past--Birth, for instance) that sounds like the stuff that usually embellishes teddy bears in elf costumes making shoes, or angry old people crossing the street.) If only Binder had trusted The Upside of Anger as a showcase for two performances by aging actors apparently comfortable and in good humour about getting older. Costner in a pot belly and tattered T-shirts and Allen wearing a perpetual scowl: Think of Costner's Dan Davis as Crash, further along down the road, and Allen in a showy role that finally gives her a chance to show us what she's got. Up and Down, all passionate intensity and smirking confusion, Upside of Anger, all standard formula salvaged by a pair of surprising, exceptional performances: both are about the troubles of a specific group, neither is what it could have been had a keener vision held the rudder. But if Up and Down aspires to something grand and fails, The Upside of Anger aspires to nothing much and succeeds. In the cosmic calculus, call it a push. Originally published: March 30, 2005.