A wicked, hugely entertaining family drama with an all-star cast that can't shake its stage play roots.
August: Osage County
Broad and brutal, August: Osage County doesn’t offer much in the way of subtlety, but there’s something satisfying about indulging in the bigness of it all. The all-star cast, headed up by a bitch-mode Meryl Streep and a seething Julia Roberts, put up bombastic, larger-than-life performances. Which makes sense, since it’s based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning Tracy Letts (Bug, Killer Joe) stage play. This “home-for-the-holidays” family drama’s (substitute “family tragedy” for “holidays”) transition from theater into the world of cinema isn’t a smooth one (due to director John Wells’ lack of vision), but the venomous dialog delivered by the accomplished, decorated cast make it hugely entertaining.
Streep plays Violet, the cancer-stricken matron of the Weston family. She’s a pill-munching, fire-breathing, queen of cruelty who fancies herself a “truth-teller”, when in reality she’s a mean old witch. Her toxic tendencies have trickled down to her three daughters, effecting them each in different ways. Julianne Nicholson’s Ivy has been rendered uncommonly dependent on Violet, never leaving their Oklahoma family home. Oppositely, ditzy, flighty Karen Weston, played for laughs by Juliette Lewis, has made herself scarce for years. Roberts plays Barbara, who shares a most contentious relationship with Violet and has inherited her mother’s nasty bark. When their father (Sam Shepard, whose screen time is brief and sweet) goes missing, the sisters reconvene at the old Weston house in muggy Osage County, bringing their significant others and heavy baggage (mostly figurative) with them.
The tension between Violet and Barb bubbles, then erupts at the film’s bravura dinner table scene, where deep-cutting insults are flung, egos are eviscerated, and we even get a mother-daughter grappling match. The construction of the scene is excellent; if the basement bar scene in Inglorious Basterds is a slow, steep incline leading to a sudden, furious drop, Letts’ symphony of wicked barbs is a twisty-turny, rickety wooden roller coaster ride full of surprises. There are so many tonal shifts, big laughs, awkward laughs, long silences, explosions of anger, and cuttingly clever jabs that your head will spin (mine almost spun right off my neck).
Streep is as Streep-y as ever as Violet, attacking every syllable of every piece of dialog with full force. Her spiteful glare and inebriated rage are met with a cerebral, sober, but equally deadly antagonism from Roberts, whose performance is raw and stripped-down (she’s usually at her best in this mode). Their scenes together are dynamite across the board, surprising no one. The acting, like the story, is a bit obtuse, but the spectacle of these heavyweight actresses going toe-to-toe, line-for-line, is ridiculously fun to watch.
The two other Julias are excellent as well, and each of the supporting players have wonderful moments. Playing the sisters’ lovers are Ewan McGregor (he still hasn’t gotten that American accent quite right…), Dermot Mulroney (surprisingly funny), and Benedict Cumberbatch (playing a meek, boyish character for once). Abigail Breslin, Chris Cooper, and Margo Martindale also impress.
Wells sits high in the director’s chair, but his filmmaker fingerprint is nowhere to be found. It seems as though he’s gotten Letts to adapt his play, collected some of the strongest actors he could find, and let them all do the heavy lifting while he does little to transform the theater experience into a cinematic one. Aside from moving certain scenes from interiors to exteriors, there’s no effort made to yank the story away from the stage, where its roots are buried deep. Wells does little to nothing interesting with his camera, and there isn’t a memorable shot to be found. It’s visual vanilla.
The film picks up speed as it progresses, with a cascade of earth-shattering revelations in the latter half causing the characters to exit one by one until only Violet and Barb are left. Everyone leaves battered and bruised to the core, but Violet and Barb are left crippled in the wreckage of the family implosion. They’re ugly creatures the both of them, and though Barb is still pretty on the outside, she can see her monstrous future self wasting away right in front of her eyes.