‘August: Osage County:’ Rated R
By Joan Ellis
You might consider doing some quiet meditation before seeing “August: Osage County.”
It will prepare you for two hours of screen time with a talented cast engaged in the pyrotechnics of family dysfunction. That’s the key question here: Why is it so exhausting when the Broadway play was not?
Tracy Letts won both a Tony and a Pulitzer for that play, and he has written the script for the movie. The difference, I think, is that the New York audience laughed a lot at Letts’ intended dark humor and laughs very little during the movie.
This may be that director John Wells called for a different tone on screen, settling instead for unrelieved darkness. The movie feels overacted, sometimes to the point of parody. That said, the script called for good actors, and they answered the call.
The Weston family returns to the homestead in Oklahoma in response to a family crisis. Violet Weston (Meryl Streep) has reported to her children the disappearance of her husband/their father Beverly (Sam Shepard.) As they arrive one by one, they find their mother is now a drug addicted, alcoholic harridan of a human being who manages to disparage them for every transgression in their pasts and present. For Violet, restraint is an alien quality.
Barbara (Julia Roberts) comes with her estranged husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) and daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin). Violet’s sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale) and husband Charlie (Chris Cooper) wade in together. Sisters Ivy and Karen are played by Julianne Nicholson and Juliette Lewis. Ivy has brought Steve, her newest lover (Dermot Mulroney.) And last, but certainly not least in the long haul – Little Charlie (Benedict Cumberbatch), son of Mattie Fae and Big Charlie. Misty Upham is terrific as the unfortunate maid Johnna. That’s the gang, and in the face of Violet’s unhinged rages, they all become vulnerable.
One problem is that some performances get lost in the confusion of just too many people.
The conflict, of course, erupts from the question of who will have the guts to stand up to Violet and in what way. Julia Roberts’ Barbara, as the lightning rod, wins that one with a sustained mother/daughter battle both verbal and physical. Roberts is terrific as she alternates angry silences with blistering attacks on her mother’s contemptible behavior. Chris Cooper and Margo Martindale move from normal family irritation to outrage in a far more credible range than the others. Their tone narrows the extremes of the rabid dysfunction and shows what the film might have been if director Wells had asked for more nuanced performances.
This family savages itself with its own indiscretions, shooting secrets into the air like Roman candles and filling the hot, dark room with venom. As grand as she is, Meryl Streep is the one who might have brought shading to the story that would have been far more interesting than a flat out, high decibel, two–hour war.