Adapted from Tracy Lett’s Pulitzer Prize winning play of the same name, August: Osage County is about family, secrets and the disorder that ties them altogether. My review after the jump.
Former poet and alcoholic Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard) can no longer cope with the demands of his drug addicted and cancer-riddled wife, Violet (Meryl Streep), so (much to the disgust of Violet) he hires a live-in maid, Johnna (Misty Upham) to help him out. Not long after hiring Johnna, Beverly disappears. When news of Beverly reaches the extended family, they descend on the homestead, travelling from across the country to help Violet.
Violet and Beverly’s three daughters couldn’t be any more different from each other. There is the bad-tempered daughter Barbara (Julia Roberts), the shy one, Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), and the “spiritual” one, Karen (Juliette Lewis). As well as the three daughters, the extended family includes: Barbara’s husband (Ewan McGregor) who she is considering leaving; their surly teen daughter, Jean (Abigail Breslin), who’d rather be anywhere else; Karen’s latest toyboy, Steve (Dermot Mulroney); Violet’s unpleasant sister, Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale); her husband Charles (Chris Cooper); and their simple-minded son, “Little Charles” (Benedict Cumberbatch).
With the family together for the first time in many years, the proverbial shit hits the fan. Violet’s drug-addiction is out of control and as a result her mood is erratic and her lips are loose. The dust is unsettled from several secrets and the family members turn on each other. All families have secrets and issues, but this family appears to be inherently broken.
August: Osage County is a phenomenal display of acting talent, with impressive performances given from the largely fantastic ensemble cast. Meryl Streep has been talked about as a potential Oscar nominee, and after viewing this film it’s easy to see why. The three-time Academy Award winner is a powerhouse here – equal parts terrifying and heartbreaking. Every time Violet speaks you’re genuinely concerned about who she’s going to hurt next, but at the same time you feel incredibly sad. Here is a woman who has hit bottom; she’s in immense pain and feels alone in the world. Through Streep’s performance you feel all the aforementioned emotions.
Chris Cooper was another stand out in a film filled with great performances. As the much maligned husband of Mattie Fae, he is very much the keep-the-peace sort of man, letting things wash over rather than picking fights; well, that’s until there is something worth fighting for. Cooper gives the character a real down-to-earth earnestness, and a heart bigger than almost anyone else there. The only real disappointment in the cast was Julia Roberts, who took the stern, curtness to extreme levels, rarely showing any emotion other than annoyance. Sure, her character was fed-up, but it felt like it was laid on just a little too thickly to be genuine.
Tracy Letts has adapted his own play for the screen here, and while having not see the play I can’t compare the film to its source material, I can say that this is a very dialogue-driven film. The plot and sparse story development feel like a secondary concern to the monologues and conversations between characters. The film lacks strong direction, wandering from one dialogue-heavy scene to the next, never really getting too far. This is where August: Osage County falls apart. I can handle the yelling and the absurd revelations and craziness, if there is a point to it all, however, other than showing that addiction ruins lives and the level to which families can be screwed up, I’m not completely sure there was one; well at least not one that was entirely worth the 2 hour runtime.
For a long time the film feels like it is simply about how much these characters can hurt each other, each revelation or secret, trumping the one before it. I can image this would work wonderfully on the stage, but it feels as if director John Wells has missed an opportunity to make this story more inherently like a film, and less like a play. Perhaps we (the audience) needed to be given a little bit longer to get to know the characters before the knives came out, so that we felt a little more emotion towards them when they did.
August: Osage County will make you feel a whole lot better about your own family. It’s highly unlikely you or anyone you know is part of a family in as much turmoil as this one.
By Sam McCosh
Director: John Wells
Writer(s): Tracy Letts
Starring: Meryl Streep, Dermot Mulroney, Julia Roberts, Julianne Nicholson, Chris Cooper
Runtime: 121 minutes
Release date(s): USA: December 25 2013; Australia: January 1 2014