August: Osage County

poster_augustosagecounty

August: Osage County is adapted from a play, and it really shows. Dialogue is king here, and as a result the film ends up being more audio than visual. This isn’t necessarily a problem, entertainment wise, as the film is still enjoyable (if you buy into the story of course, which from the looks of it a lot of people won’t). It feels like a play and that is a problem, but the problem for me is larger: I really don’t know what I’m supposed to come away with after watching this movie.

This is going to be a strange review, as critically I realize this movie has a lot of flaws, but as an audience member I still really liked it. The grade is going to be very split on this one, but I guess that’s okay. I do have to say though that even though I enjoyed the film, I can see a lot of people not liking it very much, as it is basically a dysfunctional family spewing abuse at each other almost constantly. The vast majority of characters of incredibly unlikable people, even if they are vibrant and well drawn. Normally I don’t have warnings like this because in movies that have unlikable characters,violence, or other objectionable things, because I feel like the enlightenment you gain from watching the film should outweigh the discomfort. Because I didn’t really get too much out of this in terms of broader themes, I don’t really think I can recommend this film without this warning here.

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August: Osage County describes the time and place that the story occurs (Osage County is in Oklahoma). It centers around the Weston family, whose patriarch, Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard), has just disappeared. He is present for a short time in the film at the beginning, hiring a maid Johanna (Misty Upham). Next thing we know, his wife, Violet (Meryl Streep), is summoning the rest of the family to help her in the crisis. She’s suffering from mouth cancer, drug addiction, and just being an all around mean and nasty person. The whole crew makes the trip out: her sister Mattie Fae (Margot Martindale) and her husband Charlie (Chris Cooper), Violet’s eldest daughter Barbara (Julia Roberts), her estranged husband Bill (Ewan McGregor), and their daughter Jean (Abigale Breslin), Violet’s middle daughter Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), and the youngest daughter Karen (Julliete Lewis) and her fiancee Steve (Durmott Mulroney). Mattie Fae and Charlie’s son, “Little” Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch) arrives much later. That cast of characters is hard to keep straight, but the movie does a pretty good job of keeping it all clear.

After a day or so, Beverly turns up dead, and then the funeral preparations begin. Violet turns more caustic after the funeral, and after a climactic dinner scene, Barbara vows to get her clean. After this, it becomes very difficult to discuss the film in terms of a straight plot line, because it more follows the discussions of the characters and which problems get revealed (except for a particularly scandalous subplot with Ivy and Little Charles later on). Violet has the drug problem and her sense of superiority over the younger generations, Barbara and Bill are having marriage problems, Mattie Fae continues to emotionally and verbally abuse Little Charles as she has done for all of his life presumably (he’s kind of slow), and Charles tries to put a stop to it. Karen is trying her upmost to ignore Steve’s faults so she can finally be happily married, while his faults include selling Jean pot and trying to molest her. Presiding over all of this chaos is Violet, who sees all and knows all and doesn’t mind calling people out on it. You do get to know the characters pretty well over the course of the film, but I still wonder to what avail? What are Letts and Wells wanting us to come away with after we see this film? Because all I really got was that abuse perpetuates itself down the generations, which is kind of obvious.

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The film relies upon its actors, who do a pretty good job here. Meryl Streep goes over the top here, and for the most part, I think it works. This is the part of the film I liked, how over the top, trashy, and soap opera-ey it was (though the acting was not cheesy like a soap opera, I just mean in terms of the plot, how show downs between characters and melodramatic moments were happening almost constantly). Her speech about her mother was particularly good; she draws you in and you can’t look away. I wish we could have seen more of Sam Shepard as he fit right in as Beverly, except that he died at the beginning. Roberts was also good here, playing somewhat against type. She can go head to head with Streep and sometimes come out on top. Lewis was really good as a ditzy woman who is continually deceiving herself and pretending not to know it. Nicholson was also good, as one of the few characters who are actually decent people, trying not to be relegated to the background and pushed aside all of the time. I feel like people have been ragging on Cumberbatch in his role here, but I actually thought he was really good. After Sherlock, the last role you’d expect to him to play is a dumb sweet kid from Oklahoma, but he did really well I have to say. McGregor, Breslin, and Mulroney really don’t have much to do here, but they do it well when they are actually called upon. Last but not least, Martindale is pretty fantastic, giving her character more dimensions than Streep does. While Streep basically remains various degrees of bitchiness through, Martindale actually switches between being nice and not nice at all, making it more of a mystery as to why her character hates her son so much.

That was an exhausting assessment of the acting in this movie, but the review kind of calls for it, as that is what the main takeaway from this movie is. I really enjoyed all the conflict between the various family members playing itself out, but I realize it’s not going to be for everyone, and unless you really want to assess the acting, then I can’t really recommend this movie too heavily. I was surprised it was left out of the best picture nominations, but I see why it did now as it is just plain too talky, even though the dialog is fantastic it still feels more like a play than a movie.

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“I don’t understand this meanness. I look at you and your sister and the way you talk to people and I don’t understand it. I can’t understand why folks can’t be respectful to one another. I don’t think there’s any excuse for it. My family didn’t treated each other that way.”

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For Further Reading:

Dan the Man’s Movie Reviews review
Rogerebert.com review
Indiewire review

9 thoughts on “August: Osage County

  1. Good review. Definitely some flaws here, but also definitely some great actors doing some great work.

    I think the director makes several missteps in how he interprets Letts’ screenplay, so I wasn’t surprised it failed to generate Best PIcture nominations. But, on balance, this is still well above average.

    • Thanks!
      I have no background about the original play, so I can’t comment, except to say that it wouldn’t surprise me. Once I think about it, the whole play seems kind of empty. Maybe that’s the message here, but I can’t tell.

      • I haven’t seen the play either, actually. Just talking about the way Letts wrote this movie.

        And the biggest take home certainly appears to be what you identified in your review: monsters are not born. They’re made.

    • Thanks! I liked the film quite a bit, even though thinking it over later I didn’t have as much respect for it. I still was pretty invested when I was watching it.

  2. Good review Hunter. It was entertaining, but it was hard to believe these characters as actual people, let alone, an actual family-unit, as dysfunctional as they may truly be. Thanks for the linkage as well!

    • Thanks! It is pretty incredible, but people can be crazy sometimes. And I guess that explains why they live so far away from each other, ha ha!

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