Cuts like a knife
Mother tantrums leave scars
By Tim Pompey 01/30/2014
August: Osage County
Directed by John Wells
Starring: Meryl Streep,
Julia Roberts, Chris Cooper,
Rated R for language including sexual references, and for drug material
2 hr. 1 min.
And you think your family has problems? Spend two hours with the Weston clan and see if you don’t go home and count your blessings. Or maybe not. Maybe watching August: Osage County will be an all-too-painful reminder of what brothers and sisters and husbands and wives suffer on a regular basis. Family: Gotta drop in and say hi every so often, but there’s no law that says you have to be nice.
Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name, August has all the usual problems you would expect from theater adapted for film: limited camera mobility, lots of talky dialogue, occasional dips in energy level. But August has several things going for it that make this dramedy worth watching — sharp writing, a wicked sense of humor and most of all, Meryl Streep as mama Violet Weston.
When the film opens, husband Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard) is hiring Johnna Monevata (Misty Upham) as cook and caretaker for his wife, Violet. When Violet overhears them, she descends the staircase. Drugged out, spare gray hair matted and dirty, it doesn’t take long for her to sink her teeth into the poor girl, with a smile no less.
In the next scene, Violet and family are in a panic because Beverly has disappeared. They start to gather at the family compound in Osage County, Ok. Violet, a lifelong smoker, has mouth cancer and has succumbed to a large assortment of pills and alcohol. The daughters are vexed not only by her health and mental instability, but by Violet’s proclivity for verbal assassination. But, as we soon learn, the most dramatic clash is between her and Barbara, whom Violet blames for her husband’s broken heart.
After Beverly drowns in a local lake, a funeral ensues. Then comes the proverbial family dinner followed by a family brawl on the dining room floor. And that’s just for starters. If you can be patient, the surprises and secrets just keep coming.
Director John Wells, whose previous experience includes TV classics ER and Shameless, has the gargantuan task of keeping a houseful of cast members and an epic family saga traveling along together.
Fortunately, he keeps the wheels on the tracks most of the time, thanks in part to playwright and screenwriter Tracy Letts’ willingness to pare down his masterpiece to a workable two hours.
Wells sets up some nice contrasts. Open country with a claustrophobic interior. Raucus humor with brutal insults. Best of all, he builds momentum around Streep’s dying exterior. It’s the details in her face that ultimately define the film’s atmosphere.
The large cast seems to roll with this approach, each member giving an exhausting performance. Streep pushes her previous The Devil Wears Prada role to the pits of hell. Roberts literally matches her blow for blow. Martindale uses humor as her weapon of choice. Nicholson and Lewis prove they are no wallflowers.
Among these queens, the men of the house — Cooper, McGregor and Mulroney — skillfully duck and dodge; that is, until Cooper shocks his wife by making a High Noon stand. Brave soul.
If guns and action are your preference, August will probably not interest you. But if you enjoy family psychology and verbal acuity, this film might just be your cup of tea. I admit, it does feel long, but that’s because, after two hours, your attention span will suffer from PTSD. Still, watching Streep and Roberts give Oscar caliber-performances is worth the price of admission. Just be prepared. When these women fight, they leave blood on the floor.