I’m going to let you in on a little secret: everyone’s family is a little dysfunctional.
Now of course, these familial flaws aren’t all the big juicy issues that are the hallmark of real dysfunction. Every family doesn’t have a history of drinking or drugs, child or sexual abuse or extreme neglect. But peel back the layers of any family unit and you are going to find some sort of issues, even if they are smaller scale one like sibling rivalry or a child that didn’t feel like they got enough attention (real or perceived). It could be something as simple as in-laws that just don’t like each other. Humans are fallible people so it isn’t surprising that any collection of them will be imperfect. On some level, everyone thinks their family (however defined) is a little messed up – even the families that look pretty spectacular to the outside observer. Some hide it better than others, but it still exists. You may have to expand the circle out to include extended family, but I have yet to meet anyone whose family didn’t have a little bit of baggage.
However, the family at the center of August: Osage County has enough baggage for a cross continental trip. The Westons are some deeply screwed up people.
An adaptation of Tracy Letts’ Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning play, the film focuses on an unhappy reunion at the family homestead of Beverly (Sam Shepard) and Violet (Meryl Streep) Weston. A crisis has forced their three daughters to make the pilgrimage to their childhood home in Oklahoma, where the oppressive heat, close quarters and tragedy are a poor mix for family tranquility. Violet’s prescription drug habit and mean streak doesn’t help either. Barbara (Julia Roberts) brings her problems with her from Colorado in the form of her estranged husband (Ewan McGreggor) and sullen teenage daughter (Abigail Breslin). She is the only one of the sisters that can go toe to toe with their mother (but not without consequence). Shy Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) has sacrificed her own happiness to stay closer to home and help her parents. Flighty Karen (Juliette Lewis) searches for her happiness in a string of men and turns up with a sleazy new fiancée (Dermot Mulroney). Violet’s sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale) and her quiet brother-in-law Charles (Chris Cooper) round out the family gathering, along with their meek son Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch) who is forced to live with constantly disappointing his difficult and derisive mother. Family secrets and long simmering resentments can’t be contained and bubble to the surface in explosive confrontations and revelations.
Sounds like a fun group, huh?
You can’t argue that this is a stellar cast; I think I counted six Oscar nominees among the bunch and this is really an actor’s movie. Character is a lot more important than plot in a lot of ways. Streep chews all the scenery in her over the top performance of family matriarch Violet. She completely commits to the performance which allows her to really go for broke with Violet’s addiction to narcotics and her seeming need to share her misery with her offspring. This is a showy role and could easily become cartoony, but Streep does her best to temper the performance. She is mostly successful, which is no surprise given Streep’s stature and her widespread acclaim. I don’t think that this is Streep’s best performance – it can sometimes just feel like too much – but she’s mesmerizing in the role.
What was utter astonishing to me was that Julia Roberts completely steals this film from Streep. I had honestly forgotten that Roberts can really act and her role in August: Osage County is definitely her best work in over a decade, if not the best work of her career. While Streep benefits from the role that has more to dig your teeth into, the role of Barbara is far more nuanced and allows Roberts to beautifully illustrate the bitterness and hardness that has taken over Barbara. All of the daughters bear the battle scars of growing up in this toxic household and have each developed their own survival strategies. For Barbara, this means slowly becoming the woman that she hates; her ability to go to war with Violet means that in the process she has become just as cold and unforgiving. There is not an ounce of vanity in her performance and in a movie where she is surrounded by some over the top characters and plot points, she manages to feel the most real and authentic. It is notable that Roberts’ trademark giant smile in largely absent; Barbara has no joy and happiness.
While everyone in the cast is uniformly excellent, some are certainly given more to do than others. This is really the Streep and Roberts show – both in focus and in screen time – though Martindale, Nicholson, and Cooper are giving enough work with to turn in memorable performances. Lewis, Cumberbatch, McGregor and Mulroney largely wind up taking the back seat; they each have an individual moment or two to shine, but their characters are largely undeveloped and secondary. It’s a shame that there was simply more talent in this movie than there was material. And I never got over the shock of hearing Cumberbatch speak with an American accent.
This is a very dark film, but there are still a number of laughs within August: Osage County as long as you count gallows humor. The hits keep coming in this film – there is one tragic revelation after another – and despite what the trailer may try to tell you this isn’t an uplifting film. But given how inherently unpleasant a lot of these characters are, it is less depressing than you would think. It isn’t all sunshine and roses, but when there were laughs it was a much needed release. There are definitely times in the film when you envy the person who was smart enough to die to get away from these people. This isn’t a film where people grow and change, so if you are looking for a real happy ending (or any concrete ending, really) this probably isn’t the film for you.
August: Osage County is a good movie, but not a great one. That’s unfortunate given the caliber of the talent assembled, but I am skeptical that this story works as well on the big screen as it would in the more intimate setting of live theater. In a lot of ways this film reminded me of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in tone and in subject matter (and I’m not the first commenter to say so). I tend to like my drama a little more on the subtle side, so while I wasn’t overly impressed with the story I was impressed with what the actors did with it. It’s rare that Streep isn’t the best performance in a movie, but this is one of those cases. Streep is solid as always, but it is Roberts that really shines in this film. It’s a shame that she’s been relegate to the best supporting actress category (at least for the Golden Globes) because August: Osage County is just as much her film as it is Streep’s. It is worth seeing this film simply to be reminded that Roberts can be quite the actress. It’s a great ensemble and the story has potential, but I ultimately didn’t think it fully delivered. Still immensely enjoyable to watch actors go to town with these colorful characters, but it is a step below many of the other probable Oscar contenders.