August: Osage County

Directed by John Wells
Written by Tracy Letts
Starring Julia Roberts, Meryl Streep, Juliette Lewis, Ewan McGregor, Margo Martindale, Chris Cooper, Julianne Nicholson, Dermot Mulroney, Misty Upham, Abigail Breslin, Benedict Cumberbatch and Sam Shepard

by Joanna Orland

August: Osage County with its all-star ensemble cast was hotly tipped to be included as one of this year’s ten Oscar nominations.  The snub did not go unnoted, with the Academy only nominating nine films, leaving the Coen Brothers’ wonderful Inside Llewyn Davis locked out of the competition alongside August: Osage County.  Where the film failed in the film nominations department, lead actress Meryl Streep thrived, garnering yet another Oscar nomination for Best Actress in a Leading Role, followed not far behind by Julia Roberts for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for their performances in this film.

The film August: Osage County is based on the Pulitzer Prize winning play of the same name by controversial playwright Tracy Letts (Killer Joe, Bug).  The film focuses on the Weston family and their dysfunctionality.  Streep plays matriarch Violet, an embittered and foul-mouthed woman who never hesitates to speak her mind even at the expense of those she loves.  She is suffering from mouth cancer, ironically as her husband puts it, and a severe pill addiction.  Her three daughters, Barbara, Ivy and Karen are played by Roberts, Julianne Nicholson and Juliette Lewis respectively.

Barbara is also a matriarch of the family, often rivaling her mother for control.  She is estranged from her husband Bill (Ewan McGregor with an American accent and rather distracting teeth) and her relationship with her daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin) is also strained.  Ivy is the good daughter in her mother’s eyes.  While Barbara was always her father’s favourite, Ivy was the one who stayed behind in Osage County to be close to her mother and be there for the family.  Karen is by far the most estranged of the three daughters, never visiting, always in the company of a new man, in this case it is in the form of Steve (Dermot Mulroney), a smarmy big shot, fast-talking and fast-driving.

Violet’s sister is also on the scene.  Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale) is as brash as her sister.  She’s always there for Violet, defending her no matter what she says or does.  Mattie Fae has a family of her own.  Her husband Charlie (Chris Cooper) has smoked copious amounts of marijuana to get through their thirty-eight years of marriage.  Chris Cooper’s performance rivals Streep and Roberts for best in show.  Not only is he a fantastic actor, but it is also wonderful to see him reunited on screen with his Adaptation co-star Streep.  Mattie Fae and Charlie have a son, Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch) who is a loser and disappointment in everyone’s eyes but his father’s.  Even in his own eyes he is a loser and a bumbling mess.  I never quite fully understood why he was perceived as such a loser outside of the verbal abuse he receives from his family, notably his own mother Mattie Fae.  There are some rather touching interactions between Chris Cooper and Benedict Cumberbatch who pulls off an American accent without a flinch, and a lot more capably than Ewan McGregor who can’t help but sound like a parody.

Now that you know all of the characters, you can imagine the plot.  There are a few plot devices and twists that play out, but first and foremost it is about this family and the struggle between Violet and Barbara for the position of matriarch.  While Streep is billed as lead actress and Roberts supporting, in reality it is the other way around.  Roberts has far more screen time and work to do than Streep, but as Streep is the bigger star and her presence is stronger in the film without actual screen time, the studio has put her forward for lead categories and Roberts supporting.  Both actresses give excellent performances with Streep ever the chameleon, once again disappearing physically, vocally and emotionally into her character.

This film is an excellent character study, and while it has been adapted for the screen, it still reads like a play.  You can imagine this screen version being directly lifted from the stage with the way the dialogue flows and the scenes are setup.  Perhaps that’s what you get when a playwright adapts his own work for the screen.  While playwright Letts has adapted two of his previous plays into films, with Killer Joe being an excellent adaptation, it would have been nice to see a more bespoke screenwriter adapt August: Osage County into a movie.  Outside of the movie star actors’ performances, there is little cinematic heightening.

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