August: Osage County (2013)

Director:  John Wells
Cast:  Meryl StreepDermot MulroneyJulia Roberts, Chris Cooper, Ewan McGregor, Julianne Nicholson, Abigail Breslin, Juliette Lewis, Benedict Cumberbatch
Plot:  A look at the lives of the strong-willed women of the Weston family, whose paths have diverged until a family crisis brings them back to the Oklahoma house they grew up in, and to the dysfunctional woman who raised them.

Genre:  Drama
Awards:  Nom. for 2 Oscars - Best Leading Actress, Best Supporting Actress.
Runtime:  121min
Rating:  NC16 for language including sexual references, and for drug material.

“I thought we were having a funeral dinner not a cockfight.”

What a downer this one is.  In all of its heartbreaking honesty, this painful portrait of a family in constant feud is one of the year’s most dramatically intense movies.  It is actually better than expected, at least over what seems like mixed-to-just okay reviews from critics. 

Based on the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning play by Tracy Letts, who also wrote the screenplay for the film, August: Osage County is a story about a dysfunctional family whose members are brought together when a death occurs.  However, at its core, the film is simply about parents and children, or more specifically, mothers and daughters.

Julia Roberts plays the eldest daughter, and it is her confrontation scenes with the matriarch of the family, played by the great Meryl Streep, that give the film its bleak and depressing tone.  There are so many excellent scenes, with the ensemble cast giving outstanding supporting performances.

Streep once again proves (but really, does she need to prove anymore?) she is the greatest living actress in the world, imbuing her drug-addicted, mentally unstable character with a spiteful touch of raw aggression, but sometimes also of mournful compassion.  One might accuse her of overacting, and she does so in more than one occasion, but her performance is best appreciated as it is.

Those new to the story of August: Osage County like myself will find it captivating and at times shocking, as revelations threaten to destabilize an already unstable family.  The performances guide us through the hellhole, and we don't emerge unscathed. 

As James Berardinelli of Reelviews put it, the film is “2014’s first feel-bad movie".  There are no winners, only losers.  It's not all dark and hopeless though as situational humour is injected at various junctures to temper the bleakness, most memorably the dinner scene where Chris Cooper's character attempts to say grace.

Director John Wells, his sophomore effort after The Company Men (2010), is more well-known for directing several episodes of the hit television series “ER”.  But he does well to bring out the performances from the large cast.  Like most movies based on plays such as Doubt (2010), also starring Streep in another great performance, rich characterizations are integral.

Months later, you may not remember how the story played out.  But you remember the characters.  I think in that vein, August: Osage County does well as an adaptation.  The film begins poorly, but after a while it’s difficult not to be engaged until the end.

Verdict:  Intense performances by the ensemble cast, in particular Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts, elevate this honest and painful portrait of a feuding family to solid drama status.

GRADE: B+ (8/10 or 3.5 stars)

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