Watching “August: Osage County”
Every year, there’s at least one Oscar-nominated film I can’t stand, and this year I fully expected “August: Osage County” to fill the slot. But this movie surprised me. At times, I found it unbearable. But I also found it strangely moving, darkly humorous and entirely engrossing. A day later, I still can’t say whether I liked the film, or describe exactly how it made me feel. But I certainly won’t forget it anytime soon, which is a testament, I think, to its weird, almost ghoulish power.
What elevates “August: Osage County” is its source material, a Pulitzer-prize winning play by Tracy Letts, and a terrific cast. Meryl Streep, as monstrous matriarch Violet Weston, and Julia Roberts as bitter, strong-willed daughter Barbara Weston, both earned acting nominations for their performances, but the rest of the cast — Chris Cooper, Ewan McGregor, Margo Martindale, Julianne Nicholson — is equally good. Frankly, any film composed of scene after scene of barbed conversation, yelling and arguments is going to sink or swim based on the conviction and intensity of its actors. I’m not the world’s hugest Julia Roberts fan, but this might be the best performance she’s ever given, and whenever “August: Osage County” threatens to fly off the rails, she keeps the film watchable.
The film tells the story of the dysfunctional Weston family, who find themselves gathering at their Oklahoma homestead after the alcoholic patriarch Beverly (Sam Shepard) has drowned himself in a lake. One daughter, Ivy (Nicholson), has remained in the area, faithfully tending to the cancer-stricken, pill-popping Violet, but two other daughters, Barb and the flighty Karen (Juliette Lewis) return home after a long absence. Karen has her sleazy fiance (Dermot Mulroney) in tow, and Barb is accompanied by her husband Bill (McGregor) and 14-year-old daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin, looking way more sullen than she did in “Little Miss Sunshine.”) The trip comes at a bad time for Bill and Barb: The couple recently separated, due to Bill’s affair with one of his students.
The success of “August: Osage County” hinges upon a tried-and-true formula: bringing a group of damaged people into a closed environment, and letting the sparks fly. The catalyst for much of the conflict is Violet, who says horrible, insulting things to everyone around her, then insists that nobody should be offended because she’s simply telling the truth. For the record, this is one of my least favorite personality types, and the fact that I wanted to reach into the screen on more than one occasion and strangle Violet is an indication of just how effective Streep is in the part. In fact, she appears to be competing with Faye Dunaway in “Mommie Dearest” for the title of Cinema’s Worst Mother. Occasionally she reveals a sympathetic, even considerate side, only to cause the audience’s tentative goodwill to dissipate by doing something completely terrible. Violet is shrewd and devious, and when she announces that “nothing gets by me,” she’s not kidding. She can sense that Bill and Barb are having problems, and chooses to divulge this information at a family dinner.
Watching “August: Osage County” was a weird experience. It contains genuinely moving moments, and I was surprised to find that I cared about the Weston family — not everyone, but definitely the three sisters. Streep might have the showiest role, but Roberts, playing a woman who appalled to discover that she’s in danger of turning into her mother, has the more compelling part. “August: Osage County” is a tragedy, but it’s also a comedy of the blackest sort, and it occasionally veers off into camp. The scene where Roberts wrestles a bottle of pills away from Streep and screams “I’m in charge now!” struck me as particularly hilarious, but this film is filled with howlers.
I never figured out whether director John Wells intended his film to shift from tragedy to comedy to camp and back again — whether the movie’s sudden changes in tone were, in fact, by design or accidental — but I didn’t really care. One of the reasons the film remains interesting, even when it isn’t quite working, is because it keeps the audience off-balance. It wrings tears, makes you laugh, inspires knowing nods, and causes you to recoil in horror. Some critics have compared the film to classic stage-to-film adaptations such as “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and “A Streetcar Named Desire.” I’d like to suggest that it belongs to a tradition of trashy/melodramatic cinema in which no plot twist is too outlandish. Such as SPOILER ALERT! DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER IF YOU DO NOT WANT TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS! two first-cousins falling in love, only to learn that they are really brother and sister! Oh my God!
What amazed me most about “August: Osage County” was its deeply cynical message. This is not a film where the screwed-up family turns out OK in the end, and everybody realizes that they really do love each other. No, this is a movie where the mother really is a monster, and the only way for her children to ensure their sanity is to abandon her forever. In this movie, family ties bind, but they also destroy, and it’s best to cut them and walk away. Those looking for a more uplifting message will be disappointed by “August: Osage County,” but those seeking something nastier and more subversive will probably enjoy themselves.
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