“August: Osage County”
Directed by John Wells
Starring Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Abigail Breslin, Benedict Cumberbatch, Juliette Lewis, Margo Martindale, Sam Shepard
If you had told me going into August: Osage County that I was in store for two of the finest performances of the year I probably would have scoffed. But after having gone through the dirty laundry with the Weston family, I can assure you that it certainly does. The ever-dependable Meryl Streep is on top of her game here and, surprisingly enough, Julia Roberts does more than just hold her own against the queen of Hollywood. In fact, she’s nearly just as great.
As acidic matriarch Violet (ironically one letter away from violent) Weston, Streep puts in the kind of work that put her on the map. Although she’s as despicable as the worst of the year, there’s just as much going on behind Violet’s pill-faded facade that she doesn’t reveal. Too bad her automated knee-jerk reaction is to lash out at her family because, with a performance like Streep’s, you can see the suffering in this cantankerous crustacean. She just can’t help but fight.
At times reminiscent of Ellen Burstyn‘s monumental performance in Requiem for a Dream, seeing Streep’s crumbling mental barricades is no fun task but it is still no less a marvel. Playing opposite her, Roberts is a wonder as well. It’s been a long time since Roberts has had anything legitimate to offer so it’s a welcome change that she taps us on the collective shoulder, reminding us that she can indeed act with the best of them.
Filling out the terrific supporting cast is a perpetually clueless and never amiss Juliette Lewis, a self-righteous and awkwardly tweened-out Abigail Breslin, a powerful beyond the pages performance via Chris Cooper, Margo Martindale doing Margo Martindale, Ewan McGregor in a complicated but not completely fulfilling role, the always delightful Sam Shepard in a small but important role, and a bumbling, insecure and totally unexpected Benedict Cumberbatch as none other than the aptly named Little Charles. Calling it a stacked cast is an understatement, especially with so much prominence placed on the performances. These people aren’t here to sell you on name recognition. They’re here to act.
The events that gets the whole gang together begin when Violet’s husband (Shepard), and father to the three girls (Roberts, Lewis, and Julianne Nicholson) suddenly disappears. He’s a drinker, she’s a pill popper and their relationship is hovering somewhere in the red zone of the domestic-abuse-o-meter. So no one is surprised that he’s up and left without so much as a note. But as the events of his disappearance start to become clear, rather than coming together as a family as one might in the midst of loss, the emotional explosions just get more volatile.
Each time the family gets together, it’s like setting a ticking time bomb and waiting to watch it explode. Whenever they sit down at dinner, each comment is a turn in hot potato as we wait to see which of the family will explode in an emotional meltdown first. Their sanctimonious battles are at once hysterical and revolting, making you thankful that you’re not a part of the Weston clan but also reminding you of your own family battlegrounds.
Much like real life, throughout the film, the closer we are to the dinner table, the more tension seeps in. Accordingly, the more people at the table, the more riveting and on edge the film is. Without a place to run, you stew like a sack of potatoes, until blam! You never quite know who or what is going to pop out when they’re stacked around that unchivalrous table of food. Word for the wise: around the Weston household, tread lightly. But as we fade away from that central table – that catalyst of action – things do tend to get a little flabby.
But aside from a few minor complaints revolving around a splattering of moments of unnecessary melodrama, August: Osage County is a surprisingly good film that I can find little to criticize. However, if you’re the sensitive type who like things wrapped up in a neat package or are uncomfortable with watching a family bicker for two hours and not really resolve anything, this probably isn’t the film for you. So I guess this really isn’t a film for most people.
Although the icky subject matter will be enough to turn general audiences away, those looking for a bonafide acting showcase need look no further than this Southern familial upset. Although director John Wells has done a great job of adapting the energy of Tracy Letts‘ source material, it still feels very much like a theater performance. Between the explosive and deeply personal acting, tightly confined spaces, and webs of dangling intermittent issues, in August, we feel like we’re in the midst of a really great play.