One cannot deny comedian-turned-actor-turned-writer/director Mike Binder's success as a Hollywood filmmaker when measured solely in terms of output (nine directorial credits and a pay-cable series in the 17 years following his first onscreen credit). The efforts themselves, however, have proven highly variable in quality, and thematically uniform enough to suggest workings and reworkings of the same rudimentary material. With occasional exceptions, Binder typically gravitated toward seriocomic explorations of male friendship, leavened by jokey riffs on the masculine libido that often veer into heavy-handed raunch. And to the very same extent that Binder's fans praise his ability to draw affecting performances from his actors, his many detractors are quick to underscore his blatant tonal inconsistencies.
Born in Detroit in the late '50s, Binder grew up in Birmingham, MI, attended Seaholm High School, and graduated in 1976. As a young man, he launched his career as a standup comic, performing at various clubs in Southeastern Michigan and later in Southern California. The act eventually turned the heads of HBO suits, who offered Binder his own episode of the One Night Stand comedy series in the early '80s. Another standup special followed, The Eleventh Anniversary of the Comedy Store (1983), opposite legends Jim Carrey and Robin Williams. Meanwhile, Binder honed and sharpened his screenwriting skills, and one of his spec scripts, a road comedy entitled Coupe de Ville, caught the attention of 20th Century Fox's then-studio head, Joe Roth, who directed the picture in 1989, starring Daniel Stern (Breaking Away) and Patrick Dempsey (Can't Buy Me Love). It was released the following year to tepid reviews but became something of a cult hit.
Binder posed a double threat two years later, when he wrote and directed the uneven dramedy Crossing the Bridge -- the tale of a bunch of quarrelsome adolescents (Josh Charles, Jason Gedrick, Stephen Baldwin) who participate in a drug heist. The following year's Indian Summer marked a step up in terms of quality and audience exposure (though not in originality); something of a Big Chill retread, it cast such stars as Diane Lane, Vincent Spano, Elizabeth Perkins, and Bill Paxton as a cadre of twentysomethings who gather for a nostalgic reunion at their old summer camp, under the supervision of former counselor Alan Arkin.
Blankman (1994) -- written by Damon Wayans, and adapted from his character on the popular In Living Color series -- marked Binder's premier director-for-hire assignment, and his last for many (many) years. This hyper-scatological comedy cast Wayans as a moronic, virginal superhero clad in long underwear who takes on an army of mobsters -- with absolutely no superpowers to defend himself. The dismal public reception of this picture (which experienced the same fate as Leonard Part 6 and The Meteor Man) may have explained the lengthy period of inactivity that followed for Binder. His next assignment didn't arrive until 1999, when he penned , helmed, and starred in the erotic comedy The Sex Monster -- as a horny husband whose wife (Mariel Hemingway) "outdoes" him by dipping voraciously into group sex and lesbian encounters.
Although this film received extremely limited theatrical distribution and turned up almost instantly on video, it ironically marked the beginning of an intense period for Binder that found him releasing a new project every year or two during the first several years of the millennium; in 2001, he launched his own HBO sitcom, The Mind of the Married Man, which he wrote, starred in, and co-directed with several others. Intended (and advertised) as the male flip side of Sex and the City, Mind cast Binder, Taylor Nichols, and Jake Weber as three sex-hungry, married Chicagoans who connect on a weekly basis to swap anecdotes about their erotic lives. Unsurprisingly, that program (delayed by the network in light of the 9/11 events) encountered dismal reviews and only lasted one season.
The sex comedy Fourplay essentially remade The Sex Monster (note for note) in a British vein, with two of the same leads. It featured Binder, Irène Jacob, Mariel Hemingway, and Colin Firth as two couples who swap erogenous partners during a residential stint in London. This film received even more limited distribution than The Sex Monster, and the reviews that did appear were tepid, at best; one accused Binder of quickly becoming a second-rate Woody Allen. That same year's The Search for John Gissing fared much better on a critical level; it retained the London setting, but swapped the elements of sex farce for a satire on Western corporate culture. In this film (regarded by many as Binder's best up through that time) , the director plays Matthew Barnes, an executive who travels to London with his wife (Janeane Garofalo) and learns that his company is prepping him to replace an older, more seasoned and weathered executive named John Gissing (Alan Rickman). When Gissing learns of this, however, he does everything in his power to make Barnes's life a living hell -- which sets the stage for a particularly nasty and droll revenge. Unfortunately, for some indeterminate reason, the film (as produced by Binder's shingle, Sunlight Productions) never received mainstream or arthouse theatrical distribution in the States, and failed to find a video distributor -- an unusual plight for an American release.
Binder struck gold, however, with the 2004 comedy drama The Upside of Anger. The film stars Kevin Costner and Joan Allen as, respectively, Denny Davies and Terry Wolfmeyer, two middle-aged singles who become much more than intimate friends when Terry's husband abandons the family. It divided critics, earning some enthusiastic and some lackluster reviews, but its A-list distribution and first-run theatrical stint (not to mention the inclusion of Costner and Allen) marked a step up for Binder.