Monday, December 30, 2013

August: Osage County

By James Colt Harrison

Adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Tracy Letts, ”August: Osage County” has been trimmed by about an hour to fit movie screens. Letts wrote the screenplay, so the film does not suffer from it’s being sliced like a side of ham. It’s up to the actors to provide the ham, and that they do in abundance.

Director John Wells has assembled a fine cast of major stars who have been liberally sprinkled with Oscar® nominations for previous films. Will lightning strike again? Possibly. With a cast consisting of Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Chris Cooper, Juliette Lewis and Margo Martindale, there is a good chance of getting one or two nominations this year.

Meryl Streep dominates the movie with her character Violet Weston. She’s a drug addict, an alcoholic, and a cancer victim. Her husband Beverly (Sam Shepard) hires an in-house caregiver for her (Misty Upham) and then takes off and disappears. This motivates the rest of the family to come together to find him. Beverly has had enough of his dysfunctional family and especially his wife Violet. That sad state of affairs prompts him to commit suicide. It’s the key event that motivates the story.

The entire family returns home to attend the father’s funeral, and all hell breaks loose. The conflicts arise, and things that should not be said are said, loudly and clearly. Daughter Barbara Weston-Fordham (Julia Roberts) is on shakey grounds with her husband Bill Fordham (Ewan McGregor), and the tension inside her explodes toward her mother Violet. Mother and daughter never got along, and Barbara cannot tolerate her mother’s drug addiction and vicious mouth.

At times the family squabbles are funny when everybody goes at it. Streep plays the character who has the best lines, best insults, and best scenery-chewing. She’s mean, she’s vitriolic, she’s funny, and she’s a slovenly drunk all wrapped into one package. Streep loves to tackle unusual characters in her films, and here she is a very unlikeable old sot. And yet you cant help loving her for allowing her vulnerability to creep through all that hate and venom. Sometimes she goes over the top like the despicable organ player in “Phantom of the Opera,” and she gives us a little too much.

The best vignette in the film comes from the wonderful character actress Margo Martindale. Her scene when she reveals an old family secret is a gem. Ms Martindale portrays just enough strength and fragility to make you weep.

Roberts and Streep dominate the female roles and take “bitch fights” to a new low level. The two women are like two alley cats on a backyard fence, fighting for their lives and their own territory. Streep wears a frowsy black fright wig and Roberts does her best to pull it all out by the dyed roots. It’s great fun and we haven’t seen such female fights since those old Women’s Prisons potboiler films of the 1940s. ”August: Osage County” is worth seeing just for that reason.

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