Sunday, January 19, 2014

Movie Review: "August: Osage County"

Well, if you've ever thought your family was crazy, watch August: Osage County and you'll feel better instantly. Because short of, say, Oedipus' family or perhaps Medea's, there's no one out there crazier than the Westons.

Violet Weston (Meryl Streep) is a chain-smoking, pill-popping shrew, living in a drug- and emotionally induced haze the majority of the time. (The fact that she's suffering from mouth cancer doesn't stop her smoking.) Her husband, famed poet Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard) numbs the anguish of living with his wife through alcohol, and the two spend their days sniping at each other. They live in a house in Oklahoma where the air conditioning is never turned on and the shades are taped shut, so there's no concept of whether it's day or night.

Beverly's sudden disappearance summons the Westons' three daughters. Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) is the only daughter who stayed in Oklahoma, and she has sacrificed a good deal of her life caring for her parents, despite the fact that she's clearly not her mother's favorite. Flighty Karen (Juliette Lewis) comes from Florida with her sleazy fiancée (Dermot Mulroney) in tow. And the prodigal daughter, Barbara (Julia Roberts) comes home as well, in the midst of a marital crisis of her own with her husband (Ewan McGregor) and the issues of raising a teenage daughter (Abigail Breslin). Vi's sister, Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale) and her husband, Charlie (Chris Cooper) come to the rescue as well, and when Beverly's disappearance turns out to be a suicide, the pair's son, Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch) comes as well, to face prolonged haranguing from his mother.

Crisis brings out the worst in people, and as the family gathers to mourn Beverly's loss, the claws, old grudges and hurts, and occasional good memories come to the surface. Vi strikes out at whomever she can—she's angry at Barbara for taking away her pills (not to mention for leaving Oklahoma in the first place), at her husband for abandoning her, at her daughters for trying to control her life. She spends a lot of time doing what she calls "truth telling"—in essence, prying into people's lives and insulting them wherever she can. But clearly all of this venom serves as armor from a lifetime of dissatisfaction and hurt.

But unlike most families that come together to mourn, this gathering is marked by the disclosure of many painful and surprising secrets that threaten to tear the family further apart. Barbara is torn between wanting to rebuild her marriage and wallow in her anger about having to be back home in Oklahoma, confronted by the dysfunction she desperately wanted to escape. Ivy wants to finally stop sacrificing her own life and build a future with the man she loves, and Karen keeps looking for love in the wrong places.

Based on Tracy Letts' Pulitzer- and Tony Award-winning play, this is a tremendously melodramatic film, one which at times feels a little more like a television movie than a feature film. I felt as if the movie layered on so many different issues, crises, and secrets that I just kept waiting for the next thing to happen. (I was glad that the bombshells stopped at one point.) But the movie's humor (and lots of profanity) keeps it from turning utterly maudlin.

What elevates this movie is the fantastic acting. Streep tears into her part with incredibly emotional gusto, and this performance is definitely among some of her strongest in recent years, clearly deserving of her 18th Oscar nomination, which she received earlier this week.

But as good as Streep is, I was dazzled even more by Julia Roberts. Stripped bare of her glamor without it feeling gimmicky, her performance is emotionally charged and complex, and has a maturity that I thought was tremendous. In my opinion, it's one of her two best performances, and I hope she gets more opportunities to portray characters like this. (In almost any other year, this performance could net Roberts her second Oscar, but I think the competition in the Best Supporting Actress category is just too good this year.)

While this movie is mostly dominated by Streep and Roberts, many of the other actors have moments as well. Julianne Nicholson, following up her strong performance on Showtime's Masters of Sex is beautifully vulnerable as the daughter who has put her own life on hold for far too long, only to discover her dreams may go awry because of her family. Chris Cooper and Margo Martindale have some terrific scenes as well, and while one of my favorites, Benedict Cumberbatch, doesn't have a big role, he still manages to touch your heart.

I didn't love the movie but I thought the performances were pretty stellar. If you're a fan of melodrama, this is a movie for you; if not, you'll still be rewarded by some fantastic acting if you're willing to endure the soap opera for about two hours.

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