August: Osage is downer family affair
August: Osage County is not a pleasant viewing experience. It features exceptional performances. Extolling Meryl Streep is almost boring at this point. It’s the supporting cast, headlined by Julia Roberts, that nearly salvages the film.
Billed as a ‘dark comedy,’ there are very few laughs here. August: Osage County is only enjoyable for watching dysfunctional characters yell sarcastically for two hours.
Matriarch Violet Weston (Streep) is dying from cancer, but wants to make sure that everyone else’s life is hell in the interim. From her long-suffering husband, Beverly (Sam Shepard, Out of the Furnace), to the newly-arrived caretaker, Johnna (Misty Upham), no one is spared.
A family emergency prompts the family to reluctantly return home in Violet’s time of need. There’s eldest daughter, Barbara (Julia Roberts). Tagging along is husband, Bill (Ewan McGregor, Jack the Giant Slayer), and daughter, Jean (Abigail Breslin). Barbara’s youngest sister, Karen, (Juliette Lewis), arrives with her new fiancé, Steve (Dermot Mulroney). Long worn down from caring for her parents is middle daughter, Ivy (Julianne Nicholson). She wants nothing more than to leave with her new mystery boyfriend.
Hoping to lend support, Violet’s sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale) and brother-in-law, Charlie (Chris Cooper), quickly come to the house. Their son, Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch, Star Trek Into Darkness), arrives to further disappoint his mother.
Tracy Letts adapts his own 2008 play assuring that the script at least is faithful to his vision. The character dynamics are interesting, but nearly every encounter leaves the characters in a sorrier state.
The Wolf of Wall Street won the 2013 gold for most f-bombs dropped in a movie, but August earns a well-deserved silver. Hearing hundreds of f-bombs from drug-addled morons is slightly more tolerable than a family drop it so indiscriminately over dinner.
Director John Wells retains the stage play feel of the material with few changes in scenery. He mostly stays out of the way to let his more than capable cast do the heavy lifting. He needed to assert himself more to avoid making everyone come across so broken and unlikable.
There’s not a weak link in the cast, yet Streep still shines brightest. Some of that is because Violet has the most obvious award-nomination-bait scenes. Streep brings a cruel ferocity to Violet that’s impossible to overlook.
Streep earned a well-deserved 18th Academy Award nomination, as did Roberts (a Best Supporting nominee), who goes to a darker place than her typical roles, in perhaps providing a glimpse at a younger Violet.
The commanding Cumberbatch is surprisingly effective playing against type as a weak-willed character. Nicholson is terrific in holding her own against some of the best actors of this generation.
There’s two audiences for August: Osage County. Fans of the play who want to see it on the big screen and those who want to watch a draining, joyless film performed by a gifted cast. Those in any other category shouldn’t make August: Osage County a high priority on their Must-See before the Oscars list.
Rating: 4 out of 10
Claire Folger/The Weinstein Company