August: Osage County

A powerhouse cast, headed by Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts, livens this adaptation of Tracy Letts' play

August: Osage County

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Directed by John Wells. Starring Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ewan McGregor, Abigail Breslin, Juliette Lewis, Chris Cooper, Margo Martindale, Dermot Mulroney, Sam Shepard, Julianne Nicholson, Misty Upham, Will Coffey, Newell Alexander. Written by Tracy Letts.

The Big Chill meets The Celebration meets Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf in director John Wells’ August: Osage County, an abrasive portrait of a dysfunctional family reunion that seems to simmer on low despite all the histrionics up on the screen, but eventually gets right under your skin.

Adapted by Tracy Letts from his stage play, the film never shakes its stage origins, but with this kind of cast it doesn’t have to. Gene Siskel’s old test asked if a movie is more entertaining than watching its actors sit around and eat lunch; well, the highlight of August: Osage County is a lengthy dinner sequence that serves as the film’s centerpiece. The script almost becomes irrelevant: watching these performers go at it is a riot all by itself.

It’s the post-funeral dinner for Beverly Weston (Sam Shepherd), who opens the film narrating his final instructions to Native American caretaker Johnna (Misty Upham) before riding off into the sunset, or walking into the sea, or otherwise disappearing for a couple of days before turning up dead: the kind of poetic suicide that might befit a literate alcoholic. 

That act allows his disparate family members to descend upon one another; one wonders whether this reunion was an effort to bring them together, or a cruel joke that Bev cackles at from the afterlife. At the center of it all is his wife Violet (Meryl Streep), the pill-popping, spaced out matriarch of the family who is manipulative, fire-tongued, and relentlessly cruel – but very often right.

Streep, in this role, is really something to see, so look-at-me over-the-top that she becomes distracting. But that’s the trick: Violet is the master of over-the-top performances, a giant distraction at the dinner table, and Streep is giving a performance much in the same way the character herself would. 

A little more natural is Julia Roberts as Violet’s combative daughter Barbara, who joins the family reunion with estranged husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) and daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin). There’s a lot of Violet in Barbara, a fact that she comes to realize during the course of the film – and something that she hates herself for. 

Barbara is the emotional core of the film, but that doesn’t mean that Roberts doesn’t have a chance to go all-out: the dinner table clash with Mom, which ends up Barbara declaring – through Clint Eastwood-like gritted teeth – that she’s in control now, is Julia like you’ve never seen her before. Streep might have the more showy part, but Roberts just about outshines her.

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Also in tow are Margo Martindale as Violet’s sister and Chris Cooper as her husband (both are excellent); Cooper, in a climactic sequence, sets his wife straight in one of the few heroic moments in the film. Benedict Cumberbatch is their shy son Little Charles, who oversleeps and misses the funeral. Violet’s two other daughters are played by Julianne Nicholson and Juliette Lewis; Dermot Mulroney is the boyfriend of Lewis’ character.

With such a large ensemble cast, few of the actors outside of Streep and Roberts get a chance to strut their stuff. But each of the characters has their own storyline through the film, and each actor gets just about one scene to shine: Cumberbatch, especially, is impressive as the country bumpkin lifted straight from Of Mice and Men

A terrific soundtrack opens and closes with Eric Clapton’s Lay Down Sally, which serves as Violet’s anthem. Kings of Leon (Last Mile Home) and JD & The Straight Shot (Violet’s Song) both provided original songs for the film. 

I’m a big fan of William Friedkin’s two adaptations of previous Letts plays – Bug and Killer Joe – but August: Osage County felt a little dry to me: it’s never quite as dark or darkly funny as it ought to be. Still, the material is ripe for  melodramatic histrionics, and the ensemble cast doesn’t disappoint. Streep and Roberts have been nominated for Oscars for their roles, but with the film’s chilly critical reception, neither seems likely to win. 

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