August: Osage County

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Release Date: January 10, 2014
Runtime: 121 minutes
Rating: R
Studio: The Weinstein Company
Director: John Wells
Cast: Meryl Streep; Julia Roberts; Ewan McGregor; Chris Cooper; Dermot Mulroney; Juliette Lewis; Julianne Nicholson; Sam Shepard; Benedict Cumberbatch; Abigail Brelsin

If there were an Olympic category for “Best Team Acting,” this big screen adaptation of Tracy Letts’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play would have swept the competition. Captained by ferocious performances by Meryl Streep (reminding us all of why she IS Meryl Streep) and Julia Roberts, “August: Osage County” invites us in for some seriously dysfunctional family good times.

Members of the Weston family have come home to roost after receiving word that their alcoholic patriarch, Bev (Sam Shepard), hasn’t returned home from one of his famous disappearing acts. Oldest daughter Barbara (a never-been-better Julia Roberts) descends upon the Oklahoma homestead along with her mild-mannered husband, Bill (Ewan McGregor) and angsty daughter, Jean (Abigail Breslin); flighty youngest daughter Karen (a never-been-better Juliette Lewis) arrives with shady boyfriend number whatever (Dermot Mulroney); and boisterous Aunt Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale) joins the party with her better-half (as far as better-halves go in this movie), Charlie (Chris Cooper). Cousin Little Charlie (Benedict Cumberbatch) later on joins the family which, in addition to the others, includes middle daughter Ivy, (Julianne Nicholson), the only Weston daughter (un)lucky enough to have stayed close to home with her parents, and mom Violet (Meryl Streep), a woman who makes Mommie Dearest look like Mother Teresa!

During the course of the family’s visit, long-buried secrets will emerge, feuds will be reignited, and plates will be smashed.

Let’s be real: half the fun in this movie is getting to watch luminaries like Streep and Roberts go nuts and curse like sailors. And they do. A lot. Yet, the interesting thing is that their performances, as heightened as they are, are exactly what the story and screenplay (adapted by Letts) call for. This family has some major issues and the only way they can rise to the surface is through hysterics. These are not the types of family problems that will be resolved with a nice, quiet talking-to. Feelings are going to be shattered and, perhaps, irreparably damaged…and there is nothing quiet and calm about that. It makes sense, then, that the family house is kept dark, shades drawn, with a smoky haze enveloping everything.

Streep anchors this ship as Violet, a woman from the old school, suffering from mouth cancer and hooked on countless prescription pills that have wreaked havoc with her mind. Her venom is spewed forth to her family (especially Barbara) with such a piercing edge that family members (especially Barbara) find it hard to simply blame the drugs. As Barbara, Roberts evokes a simmering pot that is about to boil over at any second. When it finally does, she’s like a volcano that has lain dormant for decades and finally explodes! I have never seen Julia Roberts like this. She seems so comfortable and natural as Barbara, even when she is in full explosion. Here is an actor in full command of her performance, living a character with such ease and conviction that it is no wonder she is the star that she is.

Even in a movie with two such strong lead performances, everyone gets their moment in the spotlight. Juliette Lewis has some terrific moments as Karen, the daughter who knows deep down that she is desperately trying to escape this maelstrom, but prefers to look at the world through rose-colored lenses. Margo Martindale is wonderfully sympathetic as Mattie Fae, and Julianne Nicholson does wonders with her facial expressions. Nicholson has, arguably, the most difficult task. She doesn’t have a huge “actorly” moment to break free and scream and shout like the others. Her acting is all in the eyes, the posture, the quietness. She is called upon to internalize almost everything in the face of all of this external acting.

Director John Wells wisely stays out of his actors’ ways and lets them do their thing, which they all do beautifully. He does not feel the need to dress up the picture with fancy camera angles or editing, he directs with a soft touch and allows the actors performances and Letts’s wonderfully human script carry the picture.

If you have can handle the dysfunction, you have a dinner date with the Westons.

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