by Kathie Smith
There’s a flashing sign hanging over August: Osage County that reads something to the effect of “Meryl Streep Does the Crazy Thing!” It’s hard to miss, but if you don’t notice it at first glance, it’s a facet that the film needlessly flaunts over and over and over again in its two-hour runtime. Streep, an actor who has certainly paid her dues, has nonetheless become an inane and inaccurate symbol of quality. In this case, it is some kind of irony that the one item that will be lauded as the film’s winning card—Oscar Award Winner™ Streep and her overstated pill-addicted character—nearly suffocates August’s less flamboyant and more impressive attributes. If you take a few steps back and squint your eyes, Streep, an unintentional red herring, disappears to reveal a host of savvy, incisive performances as well as a razor sharp script by playwright Tracy Letts.
Director: John Wells
Producers: George Clooney, Harvey Weinstein, Jean Doumanian, Grant Heslov, Steve Traxler, Celia D. Costas, Claire Rudnick
Writer: Tracy Letts
Cinematographer: Adriano Goldman
Editor: Stephen Mirrione
Muisc: Gustavo Santaolalla
Cast: Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Juliette Lewis, Chris Cooper, Julianna Nicholson, Ewan McGregor, Margo Martindale, Sam Shepard, Dermont Mulroney, Benedict Cumberbatch, Abigail Breslin, Misty Upham
Premiere: September 9, 2013 – Toronto International Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: December 27, 2013
US Distributor: The Weinstein Company
Streep’s barbarian queen is Violet Weston, a chain-smoking pill-popping sharp-tongued matriarch suffering from mouth cancer—a diagnosis that her husband Beverly (Sam Shepard) calls a punch line. Beverly, a retired writer, has surrendered himself not only to his wife’s drug-addled abuse but also to the comforts alcohol. When Beverly mysteriously ‘just walks out the door’ one day, Violet sounds the alarm to her family with equal parts farce and melodrama. Her three daughters react with a sense of codependent resignation and come to patronize her emergency. Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), the daughter who never left her hometown, and Barbara (Julia Roberts), the daughter who purposely did, arrive only to find out that their mother’s overwrought plight is far more of a tragedy as Beverly’s body turns up in a lake where his boat floats empty.
His death, revealed to be a suicide by a note Violet fails to mention until after the fact, fuels an emotional ritual that nearly every viewer will be familiar with—family reunion by funeral. Karen (Juliette Lewis), the last sister in a trinity of scattershot reflections of their parents, joins Ivy and Barbara as they collectively battle to be the apple that fell closest to the tree. The clear winner is Barbara, matching her mother’s viciousness almost blow for blow, with collateral damage evident in both Barbara’s teenage daughter and her distant husband. Ivy and Karen display their family dynamics in far more subtle ways, both in their vulnerability and resilience. Ivy accommodates her mother but proves to be most hard-hearted; Karen, perky and optimistic to a fault, hints of a downward spiral that she is trying to escape. Although there is clearly a cause-and-effect implication to the maelstrom of personalities, the pot is nonetheless stirred, perhaps with greater vigor than in our own families, with the fascinating contradictory and unpredictable nature of humanity.
Violet and her three daughters are at the heart of this tempestuous spectacle, but on the sidelines, are Karen’s fiancé Steve (Dermot Mulroney) and Barbara’s husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) and daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin). Perhaps most resonant, however, is Violet’s sister Mattie Mae (Margo Martindale) and family—a cuckold and a meek ne’er-do-well (played by a perfectly cast Chris Cooper and Benedict Cumberbatch.) Needless to say, all serve as potential punching bags, sparring partners, and obligatory genetic companions in Violet’s mercurial state of crisis.
Adapted from Letts’ own 2008 Pulitzer and Tony Award-winning play of the same name, the narrative stems from, by his own admission, an autobiographical impulse, incorporating his home state of Oklahoma as well as details from his own family—a bold confession given the extreme level of dysfunction on display. In film form, August behaves like a sadistic and belligerent cousin to a classic screwball comedy—one that throws words like caustic arrows in a viciously funny yet unsettling landscape. To understand exactly what kind of bitter pill Letts brings to this family drama, you needn’t look any further than the two very dark films he penned for William Friedkin: psychological masterpiece Bug (2006) and uber-disturbing thriller Killer Joe (2011)—blunt and disconcerting platforms for two extraordinary performances, from Michael Shannon and Matthew McConaughey, respectively.
Letts should be credited for the harsh and uncompromising tone of August: Osage County, steering it away from the conventional holiday movie trappings. There is nothing gentle about August’s shocking assimilation of psychological abuse, suicide, incest, addiction, and wicked co-dependency. But the true gift of Letts’ script, no doubt perfected in stage form, can be found in its ensemble and especially Juliette Lewis and Julia Roberts, giving them roles that match, if not elevate, their oft ignored talents.
Unfortunately Steep lampoons the tenacity of Letts’ screenplay and obscures Roberts blistering performance. In Roberts’ hands, Barbara’s rancor is both shocking and searing, but Streep seems committed to inflating Violet to a satire, with more interest in soliciting guffaws than any real resonance. Roberts and Streep are as much dueling banjos as their characters, Barbara and Violet. And although Roberts excels in nearly every scene (even earning the dramatic upper hand during a cathartic dinner brawl), the movie takes too much stock in the sloppy mess of Violet, including, but not limited to, an embarrassing-for-the-sake-of-embarrassing delusional dance accompanied by Eric Clapton’s “Lay Down Sally” on the hi-fi.
Directed by John Wells (Company Men) and produced by George Clooney, August: Osage County has obvious ambitions, but they are driven by the typical antics of Harvey Weinstein and his company: Since its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, the release date has shifted, the runtime lengthened, and the ending changed in a fit of award-centric posturing if there ever was one. Streep is a draw and the film seems overtly aware of this to the point of selling the rest of the movie woefully short. The sum of all of August’s parts, as they stand now, is an unfortunate disappointment despite Letts well-honed script and the spirited work of Lewis and Roberts, who both demonstrate their need for better roles than Hollywood has ever given them. What they say is certainly true—Streep does not hold back in her performance of Violet—but this does no one, including the movie itself, any favors.