August Osage County (2013) Film Review, a movie directed by John Wells and starring Meryl Streep, Dermot Mulroney, Julia Roberts, Sam Shepard, Juliette Lewis., Julianne Nichols, Ewan McGregor, Benedict Cumberbatch, Chris Cooper, Abigal Breslin, Jerry Stahl, Newell Alexander, Will Coffey, Misty Upham, and Margo Martindale.
“Here we go round the prickly pear…” So starts the long-anticipated film adaptation of Pulitzer prize-winning playwright Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County. The quote, from a T.S. Eliot poem, uttered by alcoholic poet and family patriarch Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard) in a short prologue to the film, alludes to the near-universal inability of the characters in the story to behave as mature adults. No wonder he bails out by taking his own life, setting the events of the rest of the film into motion.
The film brings together stars Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts for the first time and sports a supporting cast that includes Chris Cooper, Ewan McGregor, Juliette Lewis, Julianne Nicholson, and Margo Martindale, among others. The film was directed by John Wells (The Company Men) with a screenplay written by Tracy Letts, the original playwright.
The story takes place in August in Osage County, Oklahoma, after the film’s patriarch goes missing. His daughter, Ivy Weston (Julianne Nicholson), who has stayed close to home, summons the rest of the progeny to support their mother as the search for their father continues. This has happened before, and the family members arrive at the home with a reassuring attitude that everything will turn out as it has previously. Once their father is found, however, and suicide is suspected, the long-simmering tensions between family members – with special attention paid to those between the pill-popping matriarch, Violet (Meryl Streep) and eldest daughter Barbara (Julia Roberts) – explode with a particular nastiness and no-holds-barred ferociousness.
The film’s performances prop up the film, which slowly meanders throughout the family estate as the squabbles unfold. Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts are in fine form, and it is particularly satisfying to see Roberts yank a bottle of pills from Streep’s hands after a downright riotous funeral dinner and scream, “I’m in charge now!” Streep clearly revels in the opportunity to play another villain (her most recent villain having been Miranda Priestly from The Devil Wears Prada in 2006). Her on-the-edge Oscar nomination is sealed with a scene in which she manipulatively relates to her daughters a painful story about a pair of shoes she wished to receive for Christmas as a child. Julia Roberts surprisingly sports little makeup as well as gray roots in her hair, allowing the audience to look beyond the star and get lost in the performance, which is skillfully nuanced as Barbara treads the line between taking her mother down a peg and slowly evolving into a younger version of her. It wouldn’t be surprising if she received an Oscar nomination as well.
The supporting cast delivers some fine performances as well, and relative unknown Julianne Nicholson really sustains a lasting impression after the film is over. Her incestuous relationship with her cousin, Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch), doesn’t prevent them both from being considered the “normal ones” in the family. Chris Cooper also stands out as the film’s moral conscience, consistently calling out the family’s badly-behaving women. Some of the supporting cast seems wasted, unfortunately, in particular Dermot Mulroney and Abigail Breslin, who seems to exist simply to upset her mother, Barbara.
The film’s strengths and weaknesses come from its writing, which introduces some levity and absurdity into a film replete with uncomfortable subjects, like the above-mentioned incest as well as substance abuse, infidelity, pedophilia, and suicide. The film isn’t as upsetting as these subjects would make it seem at first glance. It does contain some bleak elements, however, including a dissatisfying anti-climactic ending.
In all, the film is a worthy adaptation of Letts’ play. Its performances are a wonder to watch and the film provides access to this story to those who have been unable to attend the play. While it may not reach a classic caliber (that distinction belongs to another dysfunctional drama, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) it is a decent entry into the genre.
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