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AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY (2013) review

January 3, 2014

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written by:  Tracy Letts

produced by:  George Clooney, John Doumanian, Grant Heslov, Steve Traxler, Bob Weinstein and Harvey Weinstein

directed by: John Wells

rating: R (for language including sexual references and for drug material)

runtime: 121 min. 

U.S. release date: December 27, 2013 (limited) and January 10, 2013 (wide) 

 

Family is a big, complex subject, and it’s inherently a personal one. Dramatizing family can generate scoffs of disbelief, or nods of familiarity with the exact same scenes. Family, as a subject matter, has the wonderful dichotomy of being universal, while also being utterly unique.

Likewise, adapting a hugely successful, and (at least in some quarters) hugely beloved, stage play has it’s unavoidable perils. Stage and film are so similar, and yet the expectations of each medium could not be more different. The baseline desire to tell a compelling human story, running violently up against the difference between attempting to reach an audience of thousands, versus an audience of millions.

“August: Osage County” is the new film based on the stage play (and adapted by) Chicago actor and playwright Tracy Letts. I am fully certain that the film will suffer many slings and arrows from the theatre community. The play was three and a half hours long, while the film runs about two hours, with scenes that expand on the play. As a Chicago theatre-maker, myself, I see the only honest and fair way to review John Well’s film is to put the play completely out of my mind and take the movie on its own merits. Of which there are many.

I was drawn into “August: Osage County.” I’m going to be cut right to the point, this story feels like something I’ve lived. The family infighting about secrets and inheritance, the matriarch’s desire to control and manipulate her children and families. This all struck me in a deeply personal way. While it’s not a perfect film, it’s operating on a very high level, and the emotional honesty struck a chord with me.

 

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First off, I find the script to be uniformly excellent. Letts has done a pretty masterful job of condensing the play, while also expanding the scope. The dialogue still has the Letts magic. My family history is out of the sandhills of Nebraska, the world of this story is familiar to me, and every moment of this script played honestly for me. Realistic is another matter, but I don’t feel there’s any mandate for realism from a script that is so unflinchingly honest in its emotions. The events might not be likely to happen, but I believed in the motivations, reactions and how they played out. This is fully, and unapologetically, big, theatrical storytelling.

The acting reflects that. Obviously, Meryl Streep has the large, showy role of Violet Weston, the matriarch of the Weston family. There almost is no critique of Streep anymore. She throws herself fully into Violet, in every extreme. It’s a big, bold, brassy performance, and it’s exactly what this script and story demand. Quite honestly, I find it a rather brave performance. Not only does she have moments of pretty realistic make-up depicting a woman in decline, but she also has to take up the calculating, manipulative and cruel side of this character. Violet could become a cartoon, and Streep embraces that fully, yet still finds the human center. It’s excellent work.

A great as Streep is, the heart of the film, in my mind, lies in two absolutely perfect performances from two absolutely perfectly cast actors. The baseline of the film, the core, the “feel” of the world of the play is effortlessly set by Sam Shepard as Violet’s husband Beverly, and Chris Cooper as brother-in-law Charlie Aiken. There simply is nothing that could set the tone of this entire film like Sam Shepard reading T.S. Elliot. Likewise, Cooper has a spotlight moment in the mid-point of the film that is the hands-down highpoint. I can’t overstate how important these performances are to the overall film.

 
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The rest of the cast, with a couple of exceptions, rises to match this work. Julia Roberts (who has aged into a very striking, natural beauty), Julianne Nicholson and Juliette Lewis play the Weston sisters, Barbara, Ivy and Karen. All are very good, perfectly cast across the board, and holding their own with the heavy hitters in the cast. Roberts, in particular, who I’ve had hot-and-cold reactions to as an actress, turns a corner here. I really liked her work.

Margo Martindale, as Violet’s sister Mattie Fae Aiken, is one of those great character actors you’ve seen dozens of times. What’s lovely is that, in positioning her to play off Streep so much, it becomes so very obvious how great she is.

There are missteps. Big ones. Whoever decided that Benedict Cumberbatch should be in this film should have their head examined. When his “Little” Charles Aiken appears, his obvious Brittishness is, bluntly, laughable. It flies, violently, in the face of the Midwestern visual tone and feel that the film has been weaving. It’s not so much that the performance is bad, but that he does not fit. We have an entire cast of credible-looking middle-westerners, and the Brit. His passable, but occasionally wavering American accent doesn’t help. Ewan McGregor has some similar, but far less profound, problems.

While the film is perfectly fine, in terms of direction, the story is well told, and clear. I think that John Wells betrays his television background (with only one other the film on his resume, the likewise excellent-but-staid “Company Men”).  I kept thinking about how exciting it would’ve been to have William Friedkin, who shepherded both of Letts’ earlier plays “Bug” and “Killer Joe” to the screen. It’s not that the film is badly directed, but it’s not distinctive.

At the end of the day, I felt that the sheer excellence on display was more than enough to encourage me to dismiss the weaker elements. I found “August: Osage County” to be a film that I connected to on a pretty deeply personal level. I can find technical elements that bothered me, but the pure emotional honesty of the story being told hit me too hard to ignore. That’s a personal reaction.

But that’s what reviews are about.

 

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RATING: ****

 

 

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