Thursday, January 9, 2014

Review: "August: Osage County"

Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Tracy Letts, who also penned the screenplay, “August: Osage County” is the sort of movie that shows its stage roots.

The action -- and by “action,” I mean people talking -- takes place in more or less a single location. There’s a certain showiness to the dialogue and performances, as if broadcasting to the back of the room. And it relies on two or three big, booming plot twists to carry the narrative, which by itself is rather meager.

This is the sort of movie that has close on to a dozen important characters, and every single one of them has at least one look-at-me moment where they get to have a big speech to deliver or an emotional crisis in which to wallow. For the minor characters, it practically feels like a checklist: “OK, here’s the timid son’s time in the spotlight.” The major players enjoy several of these.

All this isn’t to say “August” isn’t a thoroughly enjoyable cinematic experience. It is. It just doesn’t hold a grand sense of newness about itself. It feels like latter-day William Faulkner with a wink.

The film skates by on some pretty tremendous performances by some pretty amazing actors, starting with Meryl Streep. As family matriarch Violet Weston, Streep is like an Oklahoma tornado sweeping through her own house, hurling things this way and that. Suffering from mouth cancer and constantly addled by the many drugs she takes to address it, Violet feels no compunction about saying perfectly horrible things to anyone and everyone around here.

She saves her most venomous bile for her own clan. As the story opens her husband, Beverly (Sam Shepard), a noted poet, has died under mysterious circumstances, probably a suicide. As the family gathers to lay him to rest, it’s also an occasion to hash any number of squabbles, secrets and recriminations.

Oldest daughter Barbara (Julia Roberts) loathes the vindictive creature her mother has become, and fears she’s treading down the same path. Separated from her husband (Ewan McGregor) and estranged from their teen daughter (Abigail Breslin), she’s not spoiling for a fight with Violet, but she’s not about to back down from one, either.

The other two daughters are Karen (Juliette Lewis) and Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), both sporting man problems. Karen, brittle and self-deluded, has shown up with her latest beau, a glib sports car-driving business type (Dermot Mulroney). Ivy, the lonely child who stuck around to care for their parents, is resentful and reticent to share news about a new love.

I really enjoyed Margo Martindale as Violet’s sister, Mattie Fae, who has fewer sharp edges but hides a steely, mean streak underneath, and Chris Cooper as her husband Charles, a man with a tendency to smile through the pain. Their son Little Charles is played by Benedict Cumberbatch, a grown man with a childlike disposition and challenges.

Director John Wells is a TV guy whose only previous stint helming a feature film, “The Company Men,” was seen and appreciated by myself, and few others. He more or less hangs back and lets the actors rip, shrewing and harping and haranguing.

“August: Osage County” is a perfectly serviceable drama that’s worth a ticket, if only to see Meryl Streep’s latest masterwork. Even if she’s not always in the best movies, it’s hard to debate her status as the best film actor working today. She racks up Oscar nominations with astonishing regularity, and there’s a reason why.

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