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.
American Beauty Directed by: Sam Mendes Written by: Alan Ball (screenplay) Starring: Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch, and Wes Bentley
American Beauty shouldn’t be the kind of movie Oscar loves. It’s hard to watch a movie that begins with a man saying that masturbating in the shower will be the highlight of his day and pair it alongside other Best Picture winners like The King’s Speech or Shakespeare In Love.
That’s not even the biggest reason American Beauty defies the Academy, though. At almost every chance the voting members get, they favor superficial uplift over true grit. Yet when you look closer at this movie (as its tagline instructs you to do), you see that there is no happy ending, at least not in the traditional Best Picture sense. Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) really does die like he says he’s going to in the beginning.
Movies that blatently tell you their outcome are usually more surprising than ones with a big reveal at the end. Sometimes knowing the conclusion is more baffling than not. How can a man who’s already dead die, and why will we care?