August: Osage County
Directed by: John Wells
Written by: Tracy Letts (screenplay & play)
Starring: Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Chris Cooper and Ewan McGregor
There’s more capital ‘A’ Acting per minute in August: Osage County than in any movie I’ve seen in recent years. It’s as if instead of holding the Oscars this year, they’ve decided to lock a bunch of award-hungry famous people in a house and let them fight to the melodramatic death for the trophies. That isn’t necessarily a good thing, especially when the script (adapted by Tracy Letts from his Pulitzer-winning play) is a more vulgar version of nearly every hateful, generic family drama ever created. Bruised souls, past wrongs, marital turmoil, generational gap humor and a handful of “gasp!” revelations don’t form a story as much as scattered scenes meant to highlight the various thespians.
In that regard Meryl Streep practically swallows the movie whole as Violet Weston, the pill-addicted, “truth-tellin'” matriarch of this emotionally volatile clan. Director John Wells lavishes so much attention on her darting eyes and fading-but-indignant pride that the actress takes center stage even when it’s not her turn. Watching any Streep movie in the past few years this isn’t really a surprise. The Iron Lady was practically a one-woman show, and the very capable Amy Adams got engulfed in both Julie and Julia and Doubt. The only one to really hold their own against her in recent years is Philip Seymour Hoffman as the embattled priest in the latter.
Wells works around the script with this knowledge, though unfortunately it’s designed to give everyone their turn to shine. These contradictory directions create a confused, if often very watchable movie. Joining Streep is a cast of talented people relegated against their will to supporting roles. Characters played by Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Margo Martindale, Juliette Lewis and many more are all gathered in the Oklahoma farm house because Violet’s husband (Sam Shepard) has disappeared. (Spoilers ahead).
It isn’t long after most of them arrive at the house that his body is discovered, and that he’d drowned himself. Two of Violet’s daughters, Barbara (Roberts) and Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), arrived before the body was found. The third and most estranged, Karen (Lewis), flies in with her fiance and his Ferrari from Florida.
August becomes a pressure-cooked melodrama well before that barely-glimpsed funeral and the big confrontational dinner scene after it, though. From the get-go it’s an exercise in emotional outbursts, few of which the story really earns. In the first scene, cancer-stricken Violet barges in on her husband hiring a (blatantly token minority) Native American caretaker (Misty Upham). Her character oscillates between pity and repulsion several times within the scene, as she spouts bigotry with a quivering, comatose grin plastered across her face.
There was a better movie somewhere in that first scene about an alcoholic writer and his bitter, dying wife, but the story quickly descends into cliché. Its chief pleasure is in seeing the ensemble try to top each other with shouting matches, quips and general mockery. None of them are even remotely likable except Violet’s brother-in-law (Cooper) and two characters engaged in an unknowingly incestuous relationship. Of course, that pair exists just to be destroyed by that revelation, just like nearly every character in the movie exists to be tormented like an ant with a magnifying glass on a sunny day. Streep is the magnifying glass, so it could be worse.