August: Osage County
Directed by John Wells. Starring Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Chris Cooper, Ewan McGregor, Margo Martindale, Abigail Breslin, Benedict Cumberbatch, Juliette Lewis, Dermot Mulroney, Julianne Nicholson, Sam Shepard, Misty Upham. (2013, R, 121 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Jan. 10, 2014
”My wife takes pills and I drink,” says Beverly Weston (Shepard) by way of blunt explanation to the new live-in nursemaid Johnna (Upham) he’s hired in the film’s opening scene. This comes right before Beverly disappears entirely from the movie, although it’s his very absence that triggers the dispersed Weston clan to flock to the side of his acid-tongued wife Violet (Streep), who, ironically, suffers from cancer of the mouth. In the days that follow, old scabs are torn off, new wounds are inflicted, a long-kept secret is revealed, and yes, plates are thrown. August: Osage County is not for the timid or those who prefer family reunions without histrionics. This film is like a long day’s journey into another damn day.
Already a Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Tracy Letts (Bug, Killer Joe), August: Osage County was adapted for the screen by the playwright. Although Letts’ script for this new movie has none of the paranoid nuttiness of Bug or the lurid, trailer-park trashiness of Killer Joe, August: Osage County is a madhouse unto itself. But for a few exterior scenes, all the film’s activity takes place in the Westons’ Oklahoma home, where the window shades are permanently drawn and the atmosphere inside is literally and figuratively stifling – which is in stark contrast to the wide-open sky outdoors. Despite opening up the film version by including the bare Oklahoma landscape, the film never fully escapes the structural pull of its theatrical origins. The direction by John Wells (The Company Men, TV’s ER) serves the acting ensemble but never really adds anything of note to the production.
The film’s acting ensemble really kicks out the jams. Some viewers, no doubt, will find Streep’s performance over-the-top, accusing her of chewing scenery when not devouring her kinfolk. Yet her Violet is a truth-teller, a virago of vitriol whose words are her weapon. Of her three daughters, the only one not cowed by her withering comments is Barbara (Roberts), who has managed to physically escape her mother’s orbit by moving away to Colorado, yet is probably the offspring who most resembles her mother. Violet’s sister Mattie Fae (Martindale) is also capable of going a few rounds with her sibling, although her husband Big Charles (Cooper) and son Little Charles (Cumberbatch) don’t have similarly tough skin. Wonderful performances by the above-mentioned are matched by the remaining cast. It’s really a pleasure to watch this ensemble peck away at one another, even though it makes spectators wince. However, the film’s mordant humor also makes us laugh. Survival – emotional and physical – is the endgame in August: Osage County. “Thank God we can’t tell the future,” observes Barbara at one point, “or we’d never get out of bed.”