Monday, February 17, 2014
Released theatrically in January
The last time playwright Tracy Letts adapted a screenplay from his own work, it was for 2011's Killer Joe (which I reviewed here), a disturbing film that featured one hard-to-forget scene involving (*uncomfortable cough*) chicken being used as a rough sex toy. Letts' newest screenplay is for the poultry-free August: Osage County, which is based on his Pulitzer Prize-winning 2007 play and directed by John Wells of ER and The West Wing fame. Winnowed down to two hours from the rural Oklahoma-set play's running time of three-and-a-half hours, the film abounds with powerhouse performances from an impressive cast that inhabit some exceptionally dysfunctional characters exploring the film's rather unpredictable storylines.
Meryl Streep leads the way as the foul-mouthed Violet Weston, whose husband (played by an always-solid Sam Shepard) has taken his own life shortly after the film begins, thereby setting up an unexpected family reunion as the Weston clan returns home for the funeral. Streep, in a bravely unglamorous performance, plays a character ravaged by the tolls of both a painkiller addiction and mouth cancer, although the latter is a bit of a heavy-handed metaphorical touch from Letts. Violet reveals her toxic personality in August: Osage County's first scene and the character scarcely lets up her vitriol dispensation for the remainder of the movie. The congregation of her immediate and extended family under one roof (where most of the film takes place) presents Violet with ample opportunities to carve into just about everyone who crosses her path with a measured, almost predator-like approach. The nastiest venom is saved for her three daughters: Barbara (played by Julia Roberts, who really shines playing her most meaty and least likable character yet) returns with her sullen 14-year-old daughter (played by Abigail Breslin) and estranged husband (played by Ewan McGregor); the flighty Karen (played by the reliably flighty Juliette Lewis) shows up with her slimy sugar daddy fiancé (played by an also typecast Dermot Mulroney); and Ivy, the middle daughter who never moved away or married (admirably played by Julianne Nicholson with an understated approach). As great as Streep and Roberts are, and as standout as the film's centrepiece scene featuring a lengthy dinner involving all of the principal actors is, it's the scene between Chris Cooper (playing Violet's brother-in-law) and Margo Martindale (playing his wife) that emerges as August: Osage County's strongest, as Cooper's character gives a stern tongue-lashing to his wife for her constant berating of their bumbling son (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) and the exhausting hatefulness that is the defining trait of the Weston family. The scene is relatively brief, but packs the greatest emotional heft I've seen in a movie in recent years.
Surprisingly, August: Osage County only rates a 58 score on Metacritic, indicating that what some considered substantial performances from actors armed with sharp dialogue exploring complex characters within a fractious family dynamic, others apparently deemed bombastic scenery chewing from a cast dominated by deeply unhappy and unpleasant characters. I understand the latter viewpoint (this is not a movie that's exactly light on both showy acting performances or unsympathetic characters), but fail to agree with it. Heed my advice and spend a couple of hours with this highly dysfunctional lot.