Crowdpleaser “August: Osage County” (December 27) is a messy sprawling dysfunctional family drama that manages to wring some tears by its utterly satisfying conclusion.
There’s a reason why Tracy Letts’ 2008 Pulitzer-Prize winner was so popular, from Steppenwolf to Broadway. Developed by Harvey Weinstein and Letts (who has adapted several of his plays for the screen), with competent if uninspired director John Wells at the helm and George Clooney and Grant Heslov as producers, the movie is anchored by two powerful actresses: Meryl Streep as the Weston family matriarch wailing against the wind, high on pills as she fights mouth cancer, and Julia Roberts as her oldest daughter Barbara. She summons anger and strength as she stands up to her mighty mother–and loses control during a memorable post-funeral dinner scene.
There’s no room for vanity in this movie, as everyone faces off against a relative and behaves badly, at some point, although the men (Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Sam Shepard, Dermot Mulroney and Benedict Cumberbatch) provide some different colors. For better or worse, Streep dominates the movie as the foulest-mouthed unrepentant loving Bad Mother since Shirley MacLaine in “Terms of Endearment.”
Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globe nominees Streep and Roberts are also in the Oscar running for Best and Supporting Actress nominations respectively, although some reviews (the NYT’s A.O. Scott is particularly harsh) could hurt their chances as “American Hustle” gains momentum.
Review roundup, trailer and Toronto International Film Festival press conference video are below:
Sam Shepard kicks off the screen adaptation of “August: Osage County” with a foggy reference to T. S. Eliot and a succinct account of some of the family pathology that will occupy his kin (and the audience) for the next couple of hours. “My wife takes pills,” he says, “and I drink.” Mr. Shepard is Beverly Weston, a poet living in a big, faded farmhouse in northeastern Oklahoma. Beverly’s wife, Violet, soon makes her wobbly, cackling entrance in the person of Meryl Streep. She takes pills. He drinks. And then Mr. Shepard quits the scene. You will miss him. You might also envy him.
There are no surprises — just lots of good, old-fashioned
scenery chewing — in “August: Osage County”, director John Wells’ splendid film
version of playwright Tracy Letts’ acid-tongued Broadway triumph about three
generations in a large and highly dysfunctional Oklahoma family. Arriving
onscreen shorn of some girth (the stage version ran more than three hours, with
two intermissions) but keeping most of its scalding intensity, this two-ton
prestige pic won’t win the hearts of highbrow critics or those averse to
top-of-the-lungs histrionics, but as a faithful filmed record of Letts’
play, one could have scarcely hoped for better.
Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer and Tony-winning play about the unique
capacity for cruelty of the modern American family, August: Osage County, is a
fat juicy steak of a drama marinated in corrosive comedy. Arriving on the
screen with mixed dividends from an all-star cast, the film doesn’t shed its
inherent theatricality, stringing together speeches and showdowns peppered with
nuggets of stagey dialog that resists being played in naturalistic closeup. But
it’s nonetheless an entertaining adaptation, delivering flavorful rewards in some
sharp supporting turns that flank the central mother-daughter adversaries.
It’s bracing, but it does feel closer to panto than
melodrama, more exhausting than illuminating. Violet is a queen bitch with only
the tiniest of chinks, a hybrid of Streep’s imperious Thatcher, Kristin Scott
Thomas in Only God Forgives and, in cuddlier moments, Ricky Tomlinson in The
Royle Family. Yet for all the sparks, the character can’t quite catch fire in
these conditions. Such southern fried frankness might thrill those in the theatre
but at the cinema we eat this sort of thing for breakfast.
Streep plunges into Violet’s nuclear psyche so ferociously
that there’s a slight danger of forfeiting our sympathies for good. The
original, full-blown ending might have capped this performance more
emphatically. That said, the fact that she’s being played by Streep is a
guarantee you’re going to get both the wild ride and the poignant hangover.
Roberts has been much less consistent lately, so it’s especially good for Wells
that she turns out to be his top trump.
Acting with a capital “A” dominates August: Osage County, a
darkly comic drama that explores the ugly anger, pain and secrets that are
eating away at an Oklahoman family like the cancer that’s afflicting its
poisonously bitter matriarch. Based on the Pulitzer-winning play by Tracy Letts
about a very unhappy family reunion, this ensemble piece is filled with high-profile
actors who dig into the story’s rich lines and overflowing melodrama. With a
family this overwrought, it’s fitting that the movie is a bit of a mess itself,
but director John Wells mostly keeps this emotional rollercoaster on the rails.