Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard) is a poet resting on his academic laurels while awash in Scotch in the rambling Oklahoma home he shares with his pill popping wife Violet (Meryl Streep), whose acidic tongue is ironically cancerous. After hiring Native American Indian Johnna Monevata (Misty Upham) to cook and clean, Beverly disappears and a hysterical Violet calls upon scattered family members for support. Within a matter of days, skeletons come tumbling out of every closet in "August: Osage County."
Tracy Letts ("Killer Joe"), adapts his own, autobiographical, largely admired stage play and something appears to have been lost in the translation (the play ran 3.5 hours, the movie runs 2). Based upon his own grandmother, "Osage County" reflects upon how a vile matriarch's behavior reverberates among her female brood, particularly her eldest, Barbara (Julia Roberts), who battles her continuously and yet may be becoming her. And yet, despite Barbara's estranged husband Bill's (Ewan McGregor) assessment, which largely support this, Barbara merely comes across as hard rather than cruel, poking a major hole in the film's main theme.
Considering that "August" features incest, adultery, inadvertent(?) manslaughter and inappropriate behavior towards a minor, it's fairly easy to predict how much of this will play out. Meryl Streep is occasionally quite funny spewing vile, but her character makes little sense. The former beauty can be quite nostalgic sharing memories with sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale) and her daughters, before turning on a dime with her next spiteful 'truth.' Sure, there is perhaps a jealousy based familial power struggle going on here, but the way Streep relays a late act memory of her own mother would seem to point her adult self in its opposite direction rather than provide the basis of her own character, the hereditary maternal malfunction Barbara now fears. Without having seen the play, it's difficult to know what manner of subtleties have been lost in translation.
Middle sister Karen (Juliette Lewis) has run for the hills where she proves poor taste in men, having returned with latest fiance Steve Huberbrecht (Dermot Mulroney), a slick salesman with a flashy sports car and three ex-wives, whereas youngest Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) has never left, a quiet mouse with a secret attachment. The third generation is repped by Barbara's daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin), a mere plot device with little connection to the family drama. Violet's sister appears much more well grounded until we see how she denigrates her son, Little Charles Aiken (Benedict Cumberbatch), clearly conditioned into his painful awkwardness. Like Beverly, Mattie Fae's husband Charlie (Chris Cooper) stands by his wife, but her increasingly torturous treatment of their son is the one thing he will not abide.
Margot Martindale is outstanding as Mattie Fae, her behavioral motivations the movie's clearest. While the film's most entertaining scene may be Barbara's dinner table lunge towards her mother, its best is Mattie Fae's statement of reconsideration to niece Barbara as she stares out the screened in porch. In one scene, Martindale lays bare her character's whole self. Streep's Violet is a gargoyle, a monster in human form whose last act revelation, while not unexpected, seals her fate as a person unworthy of consideration - the actress fails to find that morsel which would make us understand her. Julia Roberts fares better, harsh and ferocious, but again, we're left looking for Violet's characteristics, her influence here more nuclear exasperation than hereditary emotional flaws. We've seen Lewis play the ditz before and Nicholson's martyred character doesn't give her a lot to work with. As the family outsider Misty Upham represents the maternal ideal, nurturing and protective amidst the madness. The men of Osage County, with the exception of a bland McGregor, are largely more interesting. Shepherd carries the weight of regret while Cooper conveys the decency largely missing from this clan. Cumberbatch, in perhaps the oddest role of his career, is just odd enough and surprisingly well matched with Cooper, a detail that proves ironic.
Wells stages the film as a dysfunctional family shriek-fest with rests for landscape cutaways and quieter moments among smaller cast assemblages. The overall effect is to shrug one's shoulders. The director does a fine job of conveying what it's like to live in Osage County, down to the wilting August heat. The Weston house shows its patriarchal academia swamped under material possessions of matriarchal generations. But while the director gives his film a lived-in quality, he hasn't succeeded in making us care about the lives subsisting within.
Robin gives "August: Osage County" a B.
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