AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY (2013)
Running Time: 130 mins. Rating: x Stars/5 Stars
MPAA Rating: R
Director: John Wells
Distributor: Weinstein Co.
Cast: Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Sam Shepard, Margo Martindale, Chris Cooper, Abigail Breslin, Benedict Cumberbatch, Juliette Lewis, Ewan McGregor, Julianne Nicholson, Dermot Mulroney, Misty Upham
Are you looking forward to a big Christmas dinner this month with your extended family? See AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY and be prepared to curb your enthusiasm. In fact, after watching John Wells’ film adapted by Tulsa-born Tracy Letts from his three-hour Broadway play, you may just want to be alone on Christmas Eve, enjoying a Big Mac, large fries, and to have nothing more to feel guilty about than sneaking in a 32-ounce container of soda under Mayor Bloomberg’s watch. But wait! There’s not much to entertain you at Mickey D’s, so if you’re feeling frisky, ready for a knock-down, drag-out verbal fight with those nearest and dearest with you, go ahead. Join the family for dinner. You may have stories to tell for years about the event. Tracy Letts did.
AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY takes place in a small Oklahoma town and is actually filmed there, in a red state which we know as one whose residents grit their teeth when confronted with thoughts of gay marriage and contraception but which, just like us in New York, finds its good folks concerned more about what’s under their own roofs than what goes on in the state legislature.
The guests at a dinner rarely see one another and are gathered not for a happy occasion but to pay respects when a man has died. They more or less forget that they’ve just buried an older man and tear into one another for reasons that may seem to us more like excuses to brawl than for specific causes. At the center of the gathering, Violet Weston (Meryl Streep), being treated for mouth cancer and affixed with both a fright wig and a full rug, is busy chain smoking. But the fire that comes deep within her is not for her Marlboros but rather for bringing the people of her extended family down a few pegs. She delivers the kind of performance that we expect from Meryl Streep, a vitriolic tour-de-force act that will garner for her yet another Oscar nomination. In its prioritizing of talk rather than what usually passes for action on the big screen, this movie gives off its roots on the legitimate stage. We can easily picture how on Broadway, the automobile rides that show up now and then in the movie can be dispensed with, leaving the audience with little more than a creepy, rural homestead with its windows taped, its residents never knowing whether it’s daytime or night.
Paying homage, it seems, to some great American plays like Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” and Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”—plus southern elements from Tennessee Williams and guilt trips you’ll find in the plays of Arthur Miller–AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY offers for our amusement quite a lot of back-stabbing talk: if this were a Thanksgiving dinner, you could say the men and women are talking turkey and mean that in both senses of the word.
Before his suicide, Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard) introduces us to the story by telling his maid that he is a heavy drinker and his wife is a drug addict. He channels T.S. Eliot with the philosophy that “life is very long.” After his burial, family members converge from Florida, Colorado and Oklahoma on Violet’s rural home. Barbara (Julia Roberts), the eldest of three of Vi’s daughters, shows up with her estranged husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) in tow as well as their fourteen-year-old daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin). Karen Weston (Juliette Lewis), the youngest of the three daughters, has conned her fiance and hustler Steve Heidebrecht (Dermot Mulroney) into attending the funeral fete. Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), in the middle, is persuaded to admit that she has a boyfriend, her first cousin and apparent loser, “Little” Charles Aiken (Benedict Cumberbatch)—who has overslept and has thereby missed the funeral. Maternal Uncle and Aunt, Charles Aiken (Chris Cooper) and his wife, Violet’s sister, Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale), make the scene and will have words for each other even more fierily than the overlong grace that he has been persuaded to say before the meal.
The venom spills—Barbara hates that her mother is addicted to ten prescription pills, Johnna Monevata (Misty Upham), the Native American housekeeper-cook is furious that Steve is messing with an underage female, Charles and Mattie hurl barbs and accusations against each other, and plates are thrown around the room. Everyone is shouting more loudly than New York’s Lexington Avenue line. Yet none of the histrionics would mean much without the strong presence of Violet, riddled more with drugs than with her oral cancer, letting loose with her fury particularly against her eldest daughter whom she accuses of being an ingrate. If you’ve never seen a play by O’Neill, Albee, Williams or Miller, you can watch these proceedings to get at least an inkling of what America’s four leading playwrights are about.
John Wells is best known to us for his direction of THE COMPANY MEN (how a downsizing affects three men, their families and their community). He evokes top performances from his cast on the widescreen, opened-up play of Tracy Letts to elicit a tsunami of loud accusations and revelations of family secrets to illustrate a quote by one character, “Thank God we can’t tell the future. We’d never get out of bed.”
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