Review: August, Osage County (2014)

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Director: John Wells
Screenwriter: Tracy Letts
Based on the play of the same name by Tracy Letts
Cast: Julia Roberts, Meryl Streep, Julianne Nicholson, Juliette Lewis, Ewan McGregor, Abigail Breslin Chris Cooper, Margo Martindale & Benedict Cumberbatch
Runtime: 121 min // Certificate: 15

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Hd_uO72h1s]

Adapting stage plays for the big screen is a thankless task; you have to ensure that you capture the intricate detail within the dialogue without simply filming a play; as theatre productions get grander / more expensive, the line between the film and the play can become blurred. In the case of Tracy Letts’ stage plays, August: Osage County is perhaps his most naturalistic, traditional piece of theatre (at least when compared to Killer Joe and Bug), so the task for John Wells – the film’s director – was to traverse the thin line between adaptation and mimicry.

August: Osage County follows cancer-ridden, pill-popping matriarch Violet (Streep) as she attempts to host her bitterly divided family in the wake of the apparent suicide of her husband Beverly (played by Sam Shepard). After the funeral, the disparate elements of this vast, swollen tribe of people come together to toast farewell to the deceased. Alas, bitter rivalries and hitherto unspoken secrets threaten to ruin the proceedings, while Violet’s “truth-telling” soon starts to tear down the transparent façade of familial respect, tolerance and courtesy. Lovers bicker, sisters turn on each other and three generations of women go to war as death reunites and then shatters this broken family.

At its core, this is a film that takes a bleak but comic approach to the darkness within every family. It is a hysterical, shrieking melodrama that relishes the opportunity to exaggerate each minute detail of a family breakdown to ensure maximum drama and hilarity. Though I generally much prefer gritty realism, Letts’ approach to the issues works in such a manner that he is able to explore the ironic and often ludicrous nature of each character’s philosophy and hypocrisy; he has no bones about taking a “comedy-of-errors” approach to his writing, thus resulting in a film that works precisely because of its sheer absurdity.

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The film’s power rests in its vicious but tragic characters. Violet is a total monster – so it’s the type of role in which Streep is now well-versed – who rules her family with a sharp tongue, an iron fist and a drug addiction. Her daughters, Barbara (Roberts), Karen (Lewis) and Ivy (Robinson), are all bitter women with a fuckton of Freudian hatred going on, her sister Mattie Fae (Martindale) is a bully, particularly to Charles (Cooper) and their son, Little Charles (Cumberbatch), and the maid (Johnna, played by Misty Upham) is a native American, so Violet doesn’t like her one bit. Furthermore, Little Charles is in love with Ivy (his first cousin), Barbara’s partner Bill (McGregor) has run off with a younger woman and Karen is lumbered with a man who uses pot to try and groom Barbara’s daughter Jean (Breslin). “Dysfunctional” just ain’t the word…

One of the film’s greatest strengths is that it focuses heavily on its female characters without resorting to trite cliché. The secrets are seen not through the eyes of the men – most of whom take a backseat for much of the runtime – but through the eyes of the women. Three generations collide in vicious, spectacular fashion, yet the film doesn’t treat its women as unreasonable. The danger that the women would be presented as menopausal hags, as they are in so many films like this, is avoided because Letts tries his damnedest to make his characters real. They’re exaggerated, sure, but no matter how ridiculous the situation gets, the characters maintain a certain level of believability.

The film also benefits from Wells’ refusal to intrude in the drama. For much of the film he takes a backseat. There are some pleasant shots of the desolate area in which Violet lives but for the most part he just leaves the wealth of talent to get on with their performances. I daren’t imagine what Friedkin might have done with this sort of material but Wells treats it well enough. There are a few moments when its stage credentials are much too obvious, though these aren’t too problematic because the script is so entertaining. It’s far from powerful filmmaking and I’m not sure there’s any meaningful message to take from it but that doesn’t matter too much because it is quite darkly funny.

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As for the performances… well, for some time now I’ve thought that Ms Streep must be blackmailing the Academy, such is their inclination to nominate her almost every year without fail. Nevertheless, in this particular instance it’s a well-earned nod. Though she’s not the star of the film (Roberts is), Streep delivers one of the greatest performances of her career, relishing every opportunity to be as vitriolic as she possibly can. She embraces the material with real passion; she spits her venom, guffaws at sentimentality and throws a series of histrionic fits that border on unbearable (but, in the context of the film, work rather brilliantly) yet she somehow manages, in spite of her character’s somewhat one-dimensional nature, to pull out all the stops to ensure that she never once becomes a caricature. When the script calls for it she reins herself in to show the audience a glimmer of the woman’s softer side, yet never enough so that we forget that deep down she’s still just a vicious, spiteful, untrustworthy bitch. Her presence is so powerful that even when she’s not speaking you can feel her judging you. It’s a phenomenal performance that entails just the right amount of scenery-munching, though I’ve come to expect no less from Ms Streep over the years.

When your film is this character-driven it is important that all of the major players do their bit to help it stay on the right side of preposterous. Though there are a few weaker links (Cumberbatch, for example, isn’t great, while Abigail Breslin struggles to hold her own when put up against Streep, Roberts and Robinson) everyone still delivers a decent performance, and it is to their credit that no-one fades out of focus too much. Sure, the major players steal the limelight from some of the film’s younger stars but when you consider them as a collective it all comes together beautifully. The chemistry between the stars is engrossing and even though the film is ridiculous and overlong, I could happily watch them indulge in the verbal annihilation of one another all day. The film is rich in comedy, though it never supersedes the drama or the tragedy, and although I thought it dragged on too much in the final act, it is wickedly entertaining.

Full of scenery-chewing, hatred and melodrama, August: Osage County is an entertaining watch. There are a lot of contrivances pushing things along but they suit the film rather well, and even when it hits the occasional lull, you can guarantee that the performances will keep you more than engaged. It’s not Letts’ best film, but it’s his most accessible and his most amusing.

★★★½

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