Directed by: John Wells
Written by: Tracy Letts
Cast: Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Margo Martindale, Chris Cooper
After Violet Weston’s husband has been missing for several days her family travels from afar to help find him. When he is discovered dead of apparent suicide, the family stays for the funeral and to help pick up the pieces of a troubled family life that slowly comes to light. Violet (Meryl Streep) is addicted to pharmaceutical drugs which she took before she was diagnosed with Cancer of the mouth and we are told she may have begun taking years before to escape past sins left unspoken.
August: Osage County is not specifically about Violet and her condition but about scars, real or mental. As her family and close friends begin to arrive we see a group of people that has had its fair share of problems, had its fights; resentments. A family that is all too familiar, although largely hyperbolic. This is a story of family, warts and all. We all have our family secrets, idiosyncrasies of family members that became ‘just one of those things’; topics of conversation completely passed over.
Based on the stage play also written by Tracy Letts who gave us Bug (2006), and Killer Joe (2012), both based on his plays, and both directed by William Friedkin we have another story that is not what it seems. At first glance it is about a death in a family and how one family deals with that, but it is also about mental scars and how our parents shaped us, for good and bad, by their own actions and they are who they are because of their own parents… ad nauseum.
And no scene more prevalent than the dinner had on the day of the father’s funeral where Violet, who has taken a few too many pills, begins to verbally pick at her children; their divorces, their single life, their failing good looks. And when the eldest daughter Barbara (Julia Roberts) chastises Mom for being so insensitive and to quit her attacks, Violet insists on the family that they don’t know what attacks are and reveals all the violence and hard times the older generation had; that these kids should be grateful they have never been hit. But what Violet is unaware of is that words have scarred these people more than any slap to the face could; mean spirited words coming from people who have either fallen and can’t rise up or who have accepted their fate and will not allow anyone else to claw their way out.
This isn’t to say that the slow burn of the first act does not captivate us as we meet the family while they systematically arrive. Each comes with their own baggage that is later revealed to have originated from this house. When the genial embraces and seemingly heartfelt conversations of the first act are subtly intimated to be more perfunctory during the unfortunately operatic second act we are not put off by the writing, -which is top-notch- but frustrated in the actual execution of the scenes.
Casting: Julia Roberts brings a grace and charm to her role when she is not venomously shrieking her lines at the other actors, and since it is insinuated that her churlish behaviour is a mirror of her mother it is only right that she mimic Meryl’s performance, albeit overdone.
Benedict Cumberbatch, however as Little Charles and love interest of Ivy, is troubling at best; his waining mid-west accent and one note performance become the focal point of a character that does have more story to work with but, again, no Director to help him along. Juliette Lewis does shine in her micro role of a woman who so desperately does not want to become her Mother that she fills her life with so much flash and glitter that she has actually lost her own personality. Julianne Nicholson as Ivy the calm centre of the family. Never too loud, never too gauche; charming us with every scene she is in sets a tone and level that this reviewer wishes the rest of the cast had followed suit.
There are times when Director John Wells (The Company Men, 2011) tries as he might to break the play out of the stage; bringing the action outside, a few walk and talks but there is so much dialogue said over tables and sitting on decks that one can’t help but be struck dumb with claustrophobia by the static frames of several actors cut with more static frames of more actors. He never seems to really reign in the cast, either; allowing arguments to reach such high levels that it feels like you might be watching a episode of a trashy daytime talk show.
A stronger director would have seen that yelling does not constitute exciting cinema. Poor Meryl bellows her way through her scenes that one wonders if she had a lemon tea just out of frame to calm those vocal chords. Another such scene involves Barbara and her husband Bill (Ewen MacGregor) taking a walk to the shed to a shed and back for some arbitrary reason and their private discussion is spit out with such volume that you are left wondering how no one in the house heard them.
The most unfortunate problem with August: Osage County is that it is saying so much but it becomes lost inside over-the-top acting and lazy staging that most people will dismiss it as a jumbled mess and move on. Because the characters are yelling to be heard all of their poignant moments are sullied; you can see there are real people in here that are supposed to be enjoyed but you find yourself disliking them all and not caring that in the end their lives have been changed for good or bad.
Barbara, “Thank God we can’t tell the future else we’d never get out of bed.”
Once a movie is finished great films encourage viewers to peal back the layers and find even more depth to what they witnessed. Beneath this ultimately broken film is a touching story of nature over nurture; that we are products of every little action in our lives, but with weak direction and histrionic performances most viewers will forget it before they get to work the next day. The film deserves to be seen and discussed as a jumping off point for similar families to face how they have affected each other, but perhaps it might be better to wait until the stage play is put up in your town… then see that.