Monday, January 13, 2014

AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY Is Darkly Funny Descent Into Familial Hell


- One might have thought, going in, that AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY was the sort of somber, weepy, bland melodrama that was pure Oscar-bait. The truth is, the film - based on the play by Tracy Letts - is much darker, funnier, and more biting than it might initially appear. While late to the party, I became a fan of Letts after seeing another adaptation of one his plays - Killer Joe - last year. That movie was so wonderfully lurid, insane, and funny that I thought "whoever wrote this is one sick, brilliant sort of genius." At first glance, Osage County might seem a world removed from the depravity of Killer Joe. But in fact, the two works share a similarly dark sense of humor, a similarly satirical look at dysfunctional family dynamics, and a similarly Southern Gothic-tinged vibe. Ultimately, I really enjoyed this film. I suppose I can sum it up like this: I was one of the few in my afternoon showing that was under 75, but my viewing experience was riddled with the shocked gasps and hollers of disbelieving senior citizens, who had come in expecting a vanilla drama and got way more than they bargained for. That's a sort of subversiveness I can get behind.

OSAGE COUNTY is the story of the Weston family. When the family patriarch, Beverly (Sam Shepard) passes away, his daughters and extended family gather at the homestead to join his widow, Violet (Meryl Streep) for the funeral and an extended period of mourning. Even before her husband died, Violet was a complete wreck - a ranting, raving, vindictive, barely-able-to-stand drug addict. Now, with her family there to witness it, she's continuing on her downward spiral, even as she continues to be a mean, nasty, spite-filled, and ultimately pitiful woman. At the same time, her daughters each have problems of their own. Eldest Barbara (Julia Roberts) has a marriage on the verge of collapse, after her professor husband (Ewan McGregor) cheated on her with a student. She also has a rebellious teenage daughter (Abigail Breslin) to boot. Middle daughter Karen (Juliette Lewis) is a loser who's latched on to a wealthy-but-skeevy businessman (Dermot Mulroney). And youngest daughter Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) - the spinster of the group - has finally found love, but with the worst possible person on the planet to find it with. To compound all of this family drama, Violet's sister Mattie (Margot Martindale) and her husband (Chris Cooper) are in town, along with their simpleton son (Benedict Cumberbatch). And as we come to find out, there are decades of unspoken resentments, lies, and secrets between the two sisters.

The drama comes fast and furious, and the betrayals, backstabbings, and behind-closed-doors scheming sessions pile up with remarkable and absurdly comic speed. It all gets to be a bit much after a while, and towards the end of the film, an exhaustion-level sets in. Are these characters *still* going at it? However, the cast is so good that watching these titans throw down is pretty consistently entertaining.

First I will say this: this is probably my favorite-ever acting from Julia Roberts. I can't think of any other movie where she's this raw, unhinged, and balls-to-the-wall. She gives as good as she gets from Streep and the rest of the cast, and the best moment of the movie (the Oscar-worthy screaming of "I'M IN CHARGE NOW!") belongs to her. This is a side of Julia I've not really seen before, and dammit all, I'd like to see more.

Second, I will say that my favorite character in the movie was probably Chris Cooper's voice-of-reason uncle. Cooper's character is perhaps the most decent in the film, but his quiet nature makes him a relative pushover in a family full of forceful personalities. But when he does finally stand up to his nagging wife ... my god, what a moment.

Third, I've got to give a special shout-out to Julianne Nicholson. I wasn't familiar with her going in, but she more than holds her own with all the other cinematic icons in the film. In fact, whereas Streep and others go full-on *acting* here, Nicholson is one of the few in the film who turns in what feels like a more nuanced, less showy performance that sort of positions her as the heart and soul of the film. Nicholson subtley, skillfully makes Ivy into the film's best and most sympathetic character.

As for Streep ... on one hand, she's great here, as usual. On the other hand, she's dialed up to 11 for the duration of the film, and she at times devolves into cartoonishness. I think it might speak a bit to some general disconnect between the tone of Lett's play and the type of actors who were cast here. Streep is the best in the biz, but she doesn't really do self-aware, winking-at-the-audience acting. Others like Martindale, Cooper, Juliette Lewis, and even Roberts seem a little more attuned to the tone of Lett's play. Streep gives 110%, but there's something a little too on-the-nose about the way she plays Violet.

As goes Streep, so too goes the film. Like I said, I really enjoyed it. At the same time, it does get to be a little much, over time. Letts' dialogue (he wrote the screenplay adaptation in addition to the original play) is consistently enjoyable - and there's a biting humor at its core that gives the whole film a cleverness and snappiness and an almost musical rhythm. What keeps this from being a classic is just a weariness that sets in. Whereas Killer Joe feels brisk, like it builds brilliantly to a crescendo, Osage County seems to hit its dramatic climax well before the credits roll. Still, if you want to see some real heavyweights of acting throw down in a no-holds-barred, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"-style smackdown, the film is well worth checking out.

My Grade: B+