August: Osage County (The Weinstein Company, R)

august-osage 75Despite the film having some merit, you’re better off seeing a stage production.

 

 

 

 

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Director John Wells’ August: Osage County has that increasingly common (and far from new) plot that centers on a family of grown children coming back to their childhood home to contend with some sort of problem, thereby reuniting the family for the first time in ages. (Best recent entries in this sub-genre: Wes Anderson’s film The Royal Tenenbaums and Dash Shaw’s graphic novel Bottomless Belly Button.) Also, it is recognizable as coming from the screenwriting hand of Tracy Letts (Bug, Killer Joe), who knows how to write shocking and fresh better than most other screenwriters working today (well, playwrights, given that all three of the above-mentioned films were adapted by him from his plays). And there’s also the fact that it’s an adaptation of Letts’ best-known work, which won the Pulitzer Prize back in 2008, and that every actor who has ever lived is in the film.

Or at least it feels like it sometimes. The film centers on the Weston clan: patriarch Beverly (Sam Shepherd), matriarch Violet (Meryl Streep, always frustratingly reliable, doing her best work here in years), and daughters Barbara (Julia Roberts), Karen (Juliette Lewis), and Ivy (Julianne Nicholson). The daughters bring their families along, or what they have, anyway: Barbara’s semi-estranged husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) and daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin), and Karen’s sleazy fiancée Steve (Dermot Mulroney). Ivy’s attached to cousin “Little” Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch), and perhaps the only truly good character in the movie is Violet’s maid (Misty Upham). And Violet’s sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale) and brother-in-law Charlie (Chris Cooper) turn up, as well. (Exhale.)

The event that brings the family unexpectedly back together is Beverly’s suicide, brought on by how impossible and awful Violet is. Pretty much the whole movie consists of the family arguing, often viciously, and as the saying goes, by the end of the film you feel like you just spent two hours wading through someone else’s shit. (Think Savage Grace or Your Friends & Neighbors.)

Now, let’s be honest: I love films like this. Movies that are about horrible people and make you uncomfortable watching them are right up my alley. That said, August: Osage County didn’t entirely work for me. There’s not one big reason why, and I half-expect it to play much better the next time I watch it, but if forced to single out a noticeable problem, I’d have to say it’s the cast. Specifically, I think Julia Roberts was miscast and can’t hold her own against Streep, who’s really on fire here. That said, I’ve talked to many other local critics about this film, and although everyone agrees that the cast doesn’t really work, there is no consensus as to who is the problem; I heard Juliette Lewis and Benedict Cumberbatch most often. So maybe the problem is with the chemistry, or perhaps the showiness of the casting. Regardless, in addition to Streep, Martindale comes off strong in the film—she’s a recognizable face who hasn’t gotten a lot of great roles, but I’ll always love her in Alexander Payne’s short “14e Arrondissement,” which is a part of the portmanteau film Paris, je t’aime. (Also, I’m grateful to see Streep and Cooper reunite for the first time since Adaptation, which is one of my very favorite films of the new millennium.)

You often hear, in the case of adaptations of books into movies, that the book is better than the movie, that you should read the book first, blah blah blah. It isn’t as often that you hear it about an adaptation of a play into a movie, for whatever reason. However, it is good advice in this case: Despite the film having some merit, you’re better off seeing a stage production of August: Osage County first. | Pete Timmermann

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