August: Osage County


Dysfunctional Family Masterpiece

Main Cast: Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts

Director: John Wells

Dysfunctional family movies provide a special kind of satisfaction.  For no matter how screwed up your family might be, you can always find a movie family that is so deeply dysfunctional that it makes your own look like bad family lightweights.  Five minutes into August: Osage County, you know you’ve just been introduced to the family that will make you feel like the best sibling/child/parent in the world.  It’s like a supremely well-crafted public service announcement for those of us with family insecurity.

August: Osage County takes place in August.  In Osage County.  Duh.  Osage county is in Oklahoma, and in August it’s blindingly hot.  We first meet patriarch Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard), as he explains his wife’s prescription drug addiction and his alcoholism in a strangely matter of fact manner to the new housekeeper he’s hired to both take care of the house and get his wife to and from the doctor’s appointments she needs to treat her oral cancer.   When we meet said wife, Violet (Oscar nominated Meryl Streep) we understand in just seconds what it is that drives him to drink.  She’s a mess – and a mean one at that.  But blaming her for his drinking isn’t fair – their relationship is one of absolutely mutual co-dependent enabling.

The couple has three daughters, all of whom are called to the home front when Beverly walks out the door one day and simply vanishes. Barbara (Oscar nominated Julia Roberts) is the oldest, and most viciously bitter.  She’s having marital problems of her own and has little sympathy for her nasty and manipulative mother.  Her husband (Ewan McGregor) and daughter (Abigail Breslin) are along for the festivities.  Middle daughter Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) is the one who stayed close to home, doing most of the caretaking for her aging parents.  She is resentful, to put it mildly.  Youngest daughter Karen (Juliette Lewis) takes a while to show up with fiancé Steve (Dermot Mulroney) in tow.  Karen is the flighty one, ignorant by choice of the chaos that is her family of origin.

Also along for this joyride are Violet’s sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale) and her husband (Chris Cooper) and grown but not particularly adult son (Benedict Cumberbatch playing strongly against type).

The missing father is really only an excuse to put this family together in one house for a period of time – something that doesn’t happen often.  Violet is a virulent, ugly tempered woman who uses drugs to excuse her terrible behavior.  Her daughters each deal in her way.  Barbara engages, Ivy becomes passive and Karen feigns bewilderment.  Their scenes as a family – especially those during meals, are filled with malicious tension, resentment and the strong desire of everyone present to get the hell away from Violet.  But she’s their mother – they have obligations.

The entire movie is really about the dynamic between mother and daughters – especially Violet and Barbara (who is far more like her mother than she would like to admit).  Family secrets are spilled, bad blood revealed and changes a long time in the making are forced through circumstance.

Far and away the single strongest element of August: Osage County is the performance by Meryl Streep as Violet.  If any other actress had given that performance in that role she would have been an absolute lock for the Best Actress Oscar.  As it is, people expect Streep to be outstanding, and she doesn’t always get the recognition she deserves for being arguably the greatest actress of a generation.  Her Violet is so controlling, so vicious, so completely and thoroughly despicable that with every scene, no matter how pitiful she pretends to be, we can only imagine the horror of growing up in her household.  Steep is absolutely convincing – she never once drops the ball and allows even a hint of real humanity to shine out of this detestable shell.  While she makes Violet infinitely complex, she never backs away from the core of miserable bitchery that lies coiled at the character’s center.  It takes courage and an enormous amount of talent to walk that wretched line while still keeping us willing to watch the next vile display.

Julia Roberts, in my opinion, has never been this good in anything, ever.  She allows the sweet outer shell that she’s been wearing for most of her career to completely fall away as she does battle with Violet while at the same time pushing away her own family as only Violet’s daughter could.  She’s conflicted on a lot of levels and Roberts manages to handle this complicated mixture of resentment, anger, passive aggression, manipulation and denial with a subtlety I didn’t think she possessed as an actress.   It’s a terrific performance.

The rest of the cast ably supports the leading women, with special kudos going to Cumberbatch as the off-the-beaten-path Charles Jr. and Martindale as his mother who quite obviously despises him.  Nicholson’s character is given the task of being the only one with any sort of clarity about the family situation and articulates it simply and effectively.  Even Mulroney as the sleazy fiancé does an excellent job.

In a character driven story, the performances and the characters as written could not be more important, and each actor in August: Osage County is not only given fantastic situations and dialogue by screenwriter Tracy Letts (adapting her own stage play) but also invests fully, leaving no holes in the cast and, as a result, the movie.

If there’s one negative thing to be said about August: Osage County it is that it is in no way uplifting.  If serious family dysfunction doesn’t float your boat, then stay away.  But as a very dramatic slice of family life it’s enormously effective and very well put together by director John Wells.  4 ½ stars out of 5 and an enthusiastic recommendation for fans of the genre.

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