Saturday, January 18, 2014

Review: "August: Osage County"

During the Toronto International Film Festival, the world was abuzz surrounding the premiere of John Wells' August: Osage County, based on Tracy Letts' Pulitzer Prize-winning stageplay. Letts himself is no stranger to the stage and screen, winning a Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play in 2013 for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and playing Senator Andrew Lockhart in season three of Homeland. The Weinstein Company has done the film no favours, waiting until early January to release the film into most markets (it did have a limited release in Los Angeles in late December to quality for the Academy Awards). It was an early season favourite for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, but love for the film has waned since David O. Russell's over-hyped American Hustle opened in December (without the help of a film festival appearance). The film did reap two Academy Award nominations: Meryl Streep for Best Actress (her eighteenth in total) and Julia Roberts for Best Supporting Actress. Letts' play opened in Chicago in June 2007 with Deanna Dunagan later earning a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Principle Role - Play when it transfered to Broadway that December. The story is darkly comic at its core - as the film competed as a comedy at the Golden Globes - but one of the big casting mistakes was Julia Roberts. While Streep has great experience with black comedy, my favourite being the 1992 film Death Becomes Her, Roberts is far too keen - and often naive - an actress to truly sink her teeth into the role. The film is littered with strong actors, including Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Benedict Cumberbatch, Margo Martindale and Abigail Breslin and the film includes some great characters. Unfortunately, the story does not transition well onto film. There are far too many scene changes which limit the tension of the story. Streep is a great actress, but she was gifted an incredible character. August: Osage County is a star-filled film with a great, darkly comic story, but as a viewer, you cannot help but think that a major ingredient is missing.

Set in Osage County, Oklahoma (with an estimated 2012 population of nearly 48 000) during a blistering hot August, the Weston family children are summoned to their family home when their father (Sam Shepard) disappears. His wife Violet (Streep) is suffering from cancer and addicted to pills. Their youngest daughter Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) never married and lives close to home. The oldest daughter, Barbara (Roberts), is as stubborn as her mother and arrives with her unhappy husband (McGregor) and their rebellious daughter (Breslin). The middle daughter, Karen (Juliette Lewis), shows up with her latest boyfriend-cum-fiancé (Dermot Mulroney). The family dynamic is further complicated by the presence of Violet's headstrong sister (Martindale) and her husband (Chris Cooper). Their son Charles (Cumberbatch) is belittled by his mother and he arrives with a secret.

I can imagine that on stage the story would have a very comically claustrophobic feeling. That feeling is completely changed when a camera lens can only capture part of what is happening on screen. I liked the film, but I fear that has more to do with the story than with what I was actually watching on screen. Violet is a typical film matriarch, and I am not sure that Streep truly created a memorable performance (she is definitely last on the list of Best Actress nominees - even behind Amy Adams in American Hustle!). Julia Roberts has not been in a decent film a long time. If we are being generous, that would be 2000's Erin Brockovich, which won her an Academy Award (which really should have gone to Joan Allen in The Contender). The film contains so many over-the-top roles for women, but the men are relatively weak. Take for instance the appearance of Dermot Mulroney, who has never been the most reliable actor. Maybe all August: Osage County needed was a more sure-handed director. John Wells does not have the most trustworthy filmography. As I previously said, August: Osage County is a decent and enjoyable film on the surface, but it never truly sinks into the story enough to become a true black comedy.

My rating: 2.5 stars out of 4.

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