‘August: Osage County’ Review
If disses were marble, Tracy Letts would be Michelangelo and 'August: Osage County' would be his David. His characters in this film, directed by John Wells and based on his Pulitzer Prize-winning play, are an extended family of well-off Oklahomans loaded with secrets and festering emotional wounds. They have gathered to bury the patriarch, played by Sam Shepard in one outstanding prologue scene.
Shepard may have been the Dad, but the Mom (Meryl Streep, in peak form, even for her) is the real power. A strong and severe woman who speaks her mind loudly and frequently, and is currently suffering from mouth cancer - an irony not lost on anyone - is facing her winter years by popping pills and settling scores. A major early set piece around a dinner table has Streep sitting like a General, barking humiliating things at her family. Why, you might be thinking, would I ever want to see such a thing? For starters, it is very, very funny.
While Streep gets most of the attention, our sympathies lie with her daughter played by Julia Roberts. She's the one who moved away to Colorado with a mild-mannered husband (Ewan McGregor) and a daughter (Abigail Breslin). There are two other daughters, a somewhat floozy-ish Juliette Lewis and the good girl who never left home (and has been suffering nonstop verbal punishment) played by Julianne Nicholson. Rounding out the family is Streep's sister (Margo Martindale), her husband (Chris Cooper) and their son (Benedict Cumberbatch). There's also room at the table for Lewis' new fiancee (Dermot Mulroney) and the new housekeeper (Misty Upham).
It's important I list everyone like this because you are going to get to know them all. At over two hours wall to wall talk, each actor gets at least one moment on center stage and everybody knocks it out of the park.
While everyone professes familial love, the recurring question is why can't there be kindness? Streep and Martindale's upbringing was hard, and for some reason they feel compelled to perpetuate this pain onto the next generation. Luckily, for us as an audience, they do it in a torrent of "aw, snap" moments.
Loosened by muscle relaxants, Streep's foul-tempered widow is a Tasmanian devil of emotional destruction. I mean it as the utmost compliment when I say that drag queens will be quoting her put-downs and zings for years.
Her main target is Roberts, probably because she seems the most stable in the family. This is just a front, as she's about to undergo a divorce. Other secrets involve a relationship between Cumberbatch and Nicholson more than just "kissing cousins."
If this sounds like an episode of 'The Young and the Restless' on steroids, well, that isn't too far off, but rarely on daytime TV do we get a throwaway line like "Thank God we can't tell the future, we'd never get out of bed." Nevertheless, one must admit that while 'August: Osage County' is juicy and riveting, but feels strangely hollow. The performances and the dialogue are striking, but just watching a family stand in different rooms and yell at one another feels like something of a closed system. There aren't really wider themes - or, I should say, if there are they aren't well sold in this film version. Instead of grappling with universal truths, you may just come away from this film thinking "woah, I'm glad that's not my family."
'August: Osage County' opens in theaters on December 25.
Jordan Hoffman is a writer, critic and lapsed filmmaker living in New York City. His work can also be seen on Film.com, Badass Digest and StarTrek.com.