August: Osage County
Movie Review #741
Directed by John Wells. Screenplay by Tracy Letts. (Play: Tracy Letts.) Produced by George Clooney, Jean Doumanian, Grant Heslov, and Steve Traxler for Jean Doumanian Productions and Smokehouse Pictures, presented by The Weinstein Company, in association with Battle Mountain Films and Yucaipa Films. Starring Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Chris Cooper, Ewan McGregor, Margo Martindale, Sam Shepard, Dermot Mulroney, Julianne Nicholson, Juliette Lewis, Abigail Breslin, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Misty Upham. Premiered at Toronto International Film Festival on September 9, 2013; and in Bueno Aires on February 4, 2014. Distributed by The Weinstein Company in Los Angeles, California and New York City, New York on December 27, 2013; and in wide release on January 10, 2014. Rated R: language including sexual references, and for drug material. Runs 121 minutes.
“There is nothing that is wrong
In wanting you to stay here with me.
I know you’ve got somewhere to go,
But won’t you make yourself at home
And stay with me?
Don’t you ever leave.”
– Eric Clapton, “Lay Down Sally”
I highly doubt there’s any such thing as a truly “functional” family. There’s no family that actually interacts perfectly all the time, is always smiling, and has never ripped hair out or at least vociferated in the direction of another family member. It just doesn’t work that way, because families were made to be stressful.
Conversely, I feel skeptically as if there’s no way any family so dysfunctional as the one we find in “August: Osage County” exists. The matriarch (Meryl Streep) is addicted to pills she takes for her mouth, which probably only burns so much in the first place because she won’t stop smoking, even while she’s taking the pills. She has cancer and neither she nor anyone in the family cares; “I have cancer” seems as if, in her opinion, it’s just a statement of general reminder. Oh and on top of that she’s extremely racist, and she loves to look back upon her husband’s past. He’s recently drunk himself to death, but she especially loves reminiscing of his greatest nights of stupidity and drinking, just hours after attending his funeral. Her daughter (Julia Roberts) is what we’d call “on-the-surface-sane.” As in, she doesn’t follow in her mother’s footsteps of substance abuse, but she’s a huge control freak. Think of Roberts’s character as the darker side of Erin Brockovich, or even Adolf Hitler’s Midwestern counterpart. She seems sane, but when she demands her mother’s matriarchal power (and proceeds to abuse it), we start counting the screws loose.
Okay, I could go on about the family for hours, because they’re just nuts. I’d also be spoiling a great deal of the movie, because much of “August: Osage County” builds on the fact that we’re learning just how dysfunctional the family actually is. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what makes this such an excellent caricature, but maybe it’s the fact that these characters have a seriously convoluted understanding of right from wrong. This is very much a comedy, and that’s just about what propels it all. Though it’s a dark comedy, and it doesn’t get that way without character development. Streep’s character is the perfect example of this. While she’s certainly the most elaborate caricature in the movie, we’re also offered a deeper look into her character. Yes, she may be a woman of dysfunction, but she does have a heart.
It’s telling that if a comedy works, it’s ultimately because of those who wrote it. While Tracy Letts’s adaptation of her own Pulitzer Prize-winning stage play is phenomenal, it’s really the performances that make the film what it is. With the exception of an exaggerated and showoffish performance by Benedict Cumberbatch (and about that, why are actors like him even in business?), the whole cast is outstanding. Julia Roberts delivers one of her best roles in more than a decade, and while they’re definitely playing in lesser roles, Juliette Lewis, Margo Martindale, Chris Cooper, Ewan McGregor, and Abigail Breslin all take charge of their respective personalities. Of course, Meryl Streep is enough to rid every one else of their applause. What can I say? The woman simply can’t go wrong, even if she’s performing in the worst of films. Not that we have to worry about that, though, since “August: Osage County” is an exceptional film. ✴
– Alexander Diminiano