August: Osage County

august osage countyWhat an ensemble! Seriously, you have plenty of acting talent in this big cast in which everyone who is anyone is a part of.  It took every bit of skill and talent from this impressive group of actors and actresses to make the dysfunction and darkness of the story seem as realistic as it did. In the hands of amateurs this verging on over the top drama would have been way too much, but this cast makes the at times awful story surprisingly palatable.

Set in rural Oklahoma, this is tale of the Weston family and what happens when they all come together after the disappearance of the patriarch.  Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard – The Right Stuff, Black Hawk Down), the once respected poet, has hired a native woman (Misty Upham – Frozen River) to take care of his wife Violet (Meryl Streep – The Devil Wears Prada, The Hours), a woman who is addicted to pills, smokes like a chimney and has been diagnosed with mouth cancer.

Shortly after this Beverly goes missing.  After a few days the out of it Violet calls her family and the authorities.  She calls on her three middle aged daughters to come and comfort her.  One of the calls goes out to her eldest daughter Barbara (Julia Roberts – Pretty Woman, Notting Hill), who lives in Arizona with her husband (Ewan McGregor – Moulin Rouge, Trainspotting) and teenage daughter (Abigail Breslin – Little Miss Sunshine, Zombieland).  It is obvious that Barbara and her husband are having troubles of their own, but she still travels to her mother’s side as does her younger sisters, Karen (Juliette Lewis – Natural Born Killers, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape) and Ivy (Julianne Nicholson – from television’s Boardwalk Empire).  Karen, who lives now in Florida, brings her new fiancé, Steve (Dermot Mulroney – My Best Friend’s Wedding, About Schmidt), who is a little on the flashy, sleazy side.  Ivy still lives there and is not married so it is no issue for her.

On top of that Violet’s sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale – Million Dollar Baby, Practical Magic), her husband Charlie (Chris Cooper – American Beauty, The Bourne Identity) and son little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch – Star Trek Into Darkness, War Horse) come for the funeral once Beverly’s body is found.  After the funeral they return to the house for a family dinner and weekend in which a ton of stuff comes out.  This is going to be a family gathering that no one forgets.

In 2007 August: Osage County debuted on stage in Chicago and then moved on to Broadway.  In 2008 Tracy Letts won a Pulitzer Prize for the play.  The powers that be saw it and like it so it was made into a film.  While watching the film you can see how it must have really been powerful on stage.  It certainly is a very character driven, actorly and dialogue heavy piece of work featuring several generations of a Southern family and the telling of a melodramatic tale.  There is so much black comedy that casts its far reaching shadow you can barely see anything else.

The story involves incest, sibling rivalry, alcohol and drug addiction, cancer, racism, and adultery. A mess of human behaviour and emotions.  It all tangles itself up in a very intricate web.  That web is made tolerable due to the strong performances from the cast.

Like, I cannot imagine any other actress in the role of the cruel matriarch than Meryl Streep.  It is a difficult role not to portray as a caricature of a bitter addict who wants everyone else around her to feel as bad as she does.  Streep, who people would pay to see her recite the phonebook, reins it in just enough to make the character less cartoonish.  This makes all the cruel things that spew from her mouth painful and have their intended effect.  She makes the character riveting whenever she is on the screen and makes you want her to return (in a kind of sick way) when she is not on it.  Streep chews the scenery, spits it out and then rechews it but you won’t care a bit.

Even Julia Roberts, who is definitely not my favourite actress, is perfect in her role.  She does judgmental and bitter very well.  This is her best performance in years!  Barbara is a chip off the Violet Weston mean block and Roberts is more than up to the task.  Supporting actors like Nicholson and Cooper really shine in their rare scenes as well.  It is only Benedict Cumberbatch who is a little miscast? awkward? In his scenes.

At the end of it all when the credits start rolling and the theatre lights come on you will feel like you have been through a car wreck.  Bruised and battered mentally, I just sat there for a while still trying to absorb all that I saw over the past two hours and ten minutes.  It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea as it is dark and dreary with tons of dialogue I think it is one of the better studio films to hit the screen during the 2013-14 film season.

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