August: Osage County (2013)

AugustOsagePosterStarring: Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Chris Cooper, Ewan McGregor, Margo Martindale, Sam Shepard, Dermot Mulroney, Julianne Nicholson, Juliette Lewis, Abigail Breslin, Benedict Cumberbatch, Misty Upham.

Director: John Wells
Rating: R (for language including sexual references, and for drug material.) 
Running Time: 121 Minutes
Release Date: December 27, 2013

Jean Doumanian Productions, Smokehouse Pictures, Battle Mountain Films, Yucapia Films and The Weinstein Company.

Written by: Tracy Letts, adapted from his play of the same name.

OUR REVIEW:

In the better moments, August: Osage County is as good an actor’s showcase as one could ask for. You have Oscar nominees, Oscar winners, and respected actors riffing with one another. Scene after scene, these folks rip apart Tracy Letts‘ caustic script, chewing every word they can for maximum taste and effectiveness. On the one hand, it is very easy to admire John Wells‘ film and the sheer spectacle of watching the dysfunctional Weston family deal with family tragedy after family tragedy in a hot, muggy, late summer trip to the family home in Pawhuska, Oklahoma.

Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor and Meryl Streep in "August: Osage County" (The Weinstein Company)

Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor and Meryl Streep in “August: Osage County” (The Weinstein Company)

But on the other hand, August: Osage County, as a film, never knows when enough is enough. Adapted from Letts’ Pulitzer Prize-winning stage play, Wells simply slathers on melodramatic moment after melodramatic moment and what works on the stage becomes rather grating and insufferable in 120 minutes on the big (or small) screen. Ultimately, you have a movie that resembles an engine you simply cannot start. You keep turning it over, hoping it will fire, but really are only flooding the engine and drowning out the ability for the engine to function as intended.

A poet, Beverly Watson (Sam Shepard) hires Johnna (Misty Upham), as a live-in caretaker for his ailing wife Violet (Meryl Streep). Suffering from oral cancer, Violet is a bitter, angry, hurting woman who lashes out at those around her, often also under the influence of heavy painkillers and prescription narcotics. When Beverly goes missing on a solo outing with his boat, Violet contacts her family to come to the family residence and stay with her. One by one and few by few, everyone arrives and the fireworks start almost immediately.

Sisters Barbara and Ivy (Julia Roberts, Julianne Nicholson) are in complicated relationships and Barbara’s marriage is barely holding on. Their daughter (Abigail Breslin) is mostly left to her own devices and is engaged in far more adult behavior than she should be experiencing at 14 years of age. Barbara and Ivy’s middle sister Karen (Juliette Lewis) arrives with a new fiance (Dermot Mulroney) and Violet’s sister’s family arrive as something of a calming influence. However, Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale) and her husband Charles (Chris Cooper) have their own issues they are working through and their adult son (Benedict Cumberbatch) has some skeletons he is also keeping from everyone.

With everyone assembled, relationships are restarted, recharged, and blown all apart. The Westons seemingly despise each other in multiple and uniquely curious ways and for any steps these folks can take forward, they almost willingly leap back a dozen more. At each other’s throats more often than not, August: Osage County becomes a well-acted daytime tabloid talk show of a film. Pick a show – Springer, Maury – these folks would be on for the whole hour, maybe a multi-part episode.

And like those scripted (don’t kid yourselves) daytime talk shows, August: Osage County becomes shocking, amusing, and then altogether too much to take in. The empathy and sympathy you have for these folks is run through the ringer and while Streep and Roberts earned well-deserved Academy Award nominations for their work here, even they struggle to be heard above the din of what Wells and Letts create for us.

Photo: The Weinstein Company

Photo: The Weinstein Company

Affairs, backstabbing, lies, verbal and emotional abuse, conspiracies, people being cruel to each other simply because they can be, berating people, having no sympathy for those sick or struggling with mental illness, illicit secrets being kept away – you name it and you see it for 120 continuous minutes. At least on stage, you get an intermission. Here, the toxicity levels go through the roof and at about the time when everyone makes their final decisions on where the next chapter of their lives will take them, you simply want them all to go away.

Or at least I did. Some people have relished in the sourness and dark, black-as-the-night comedy that August: Osage County provides and I was able to stay with this for a good long while. I promise that the cast are fully engaged in their characters and to John Wells’ credit, he allows everyone to get their moments on screen and not in a way which gives these actors little vignettes to try and sell us on their multi-dimensional characters. Rather, Tracy Letts’ adaptation of his own play is smart in that respect. We do get the sense that these characters are a family and all bring painful, real-life mistakes and experiences to that August weekend in Osage County. And yet for as good as these characters are written, and as good as these actors perform in their respective roles, these are people I simply do not like at all. Perhaps that is the point. I would counter back then, if that is the point, why do I care about the Weston family struggles in any conceivable way?

If we gain nothing from watching this family’s demise, then what lessons are at the heart of August: Osage County? To not be cruel to your family? To love your family and others unconditionally? To accept people for who they are and what they are going through? Pardon me, but that is hardly insightful or meaningful in any way. Essentially then, Letts is telling us something we should already know and the Weston family experiences are so over-the-top and so difficult to relate to that they seem like caricatures and offer nothing actually relatable whatsoever.

Now… what time is Maury on again?

Rating: ★★½☆☆ 

SHOULD I SEE IT?

YES
  • Great acting throughout makes this seem like it is time well spent.
  • Those familiar with the stage play will be interested in seeing this play out in movie form.
  • Those who like dark, ascerbic wit and people just tearing into one another will get more than enough with what is depicted here.
NO
  • The Weston family and, in turn, this film is exhausting to get through. The levels of cruelty and emotional attacks just grow and grow and overwhelm the proceedings.
  • Is there a point? Your family can hate you worse than others can? Hardly true, but that’s what comes across here.
  • Can’t find sympathy or empathy for any of these characters.
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