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August: Osage County Review: Stellar Performances, Terrible People

August PosterAugust: Osage County chronicles a short period in the life of the Weston family, surrounding a tragedy that brings them all together. I should say right off the bat that I had a fairly stable childhood. We had our arguments, sure, and a fair number of them became yelling matches, but as far as my memory serves there was no substance abuse and a fairly minimal amount of verbal abuse. I only say all this because I get the distinct feeling that how your own family interacts may very well affect your reaction to this particular film.

You see, the Weston family is rife with a level of dysfunction that borders on Shakespearean. A consummate alcoholic of a father, a pill popping, insult spewing mother, and a boisterously nosy aunt only begin to account for the variety of personalities clashing when the whole family gathers under one roof. And they do clash, loudly and often. The film seems to live in an almost surreal universe of constant, heightened emotion where every conversation and exchange is fodder for yet another emotional outburst.

Luckily for us, this extreme level of familial tension is where really great actors come out to play, and play well. The best, most obvious example is the current reigning queen of actresses disappearing into their roles, Meryl Streep. She, much like Daniel Day-Lewis, is less a chameleon and more of a vessel for her characters. It’s almost as if she is possessed by a wholly different person for each of her roles, leaving nothing of the original behind. Her role here is one of her best; Violet, the matriarch of the Weston family, hopelessly addicted to a variety of pills, an insult artist of the highest order, constantly teetering on the verge of dementia, and with a mean streak a mile wide.

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The Best Parts

The Top Tier – The entirety of the cast can really be divided up into three tiers. At the top, the fantastic, consisting of Meryl Streep, Margo Martindale (as the boisterous aunt), and Chris Cooper, playing Martindale’s husband as permanently bemused and probably the only truly kind person in the family. Each of them gets a few moments to shine, and they do.

The Middle Tier – This group is still good, and consists of the three sisters (Julia Roberts, Julianne Nicholson, and Juliette Lewis) who all seem to have developed different defense mechanisms for dealing with their insane family; a hard-edged aggressiveness, a stolid passivity, and a self-centered naivety, respectively. Benedict Cumberbatch is in this category too, though he really only has enough screen time to prove he can do an American accent and play a convincing dolt (though he does get to headline one of the only genuinely sweet moments in the film.)

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The Worst Parts

The Bottom Tier – This group isn’t bad so much as their characters aren’t given a whole lot to work with and they don’t do a whole lot with what they have, leading to them coming off rather one-note. They include Abigail Breslin as the rebellious daughter, Ewan McGregor as the condescending husband, and Dermot Mulroney as the sleazy fiancé.

The Star – This film is ostensibly an ensemble piece, but as such, it has a bit of a Julia Roberts problem. The film tends to focus a bit too long and a bit too much on Roberts’ reactions to the events around her, even when she is only tangentially involved in the proceedings. Where the decision was made is unclear; was it a studio note to focus in on one bankable star, or maybe a creative decision to try to anchor us to one character? Whatever the case, it’s an unfortunate detractor, especially in the tacked on ending (literally, they added a new ending to the play it was adapted from,) which robs what should have been the film’s final shot of some of its impact.

Emotional Overload – Probably my biggest problem with the film is that it seems to be trying its best to keep us from liking any of its characters. The duration of the film is filled with a seemingly never ending series of cat fights, yelling matches, bitter insults, and generally nastiness. The marketing has played up the humor of many of these scenes, and while the humor is certainly there, it is all book-ended by so much vitriol. Even moments I thought would lighten the load, like the three sisters sitting around drinking wine and gossiping, quickly devolves into bitter accusations and arguments. For focusing so much on the destruction of this family unit, the film spends precious little time establishing them as a family unit that we should care to stay together in the first place.

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Ultimately, your enjoyment of August: Osage County will likely vary on how you react to the dynamics of its family. Do you like your Thanksgiving dinners complete with a helping of personal harassment? Does your idea of a family gathering prominently feature mocking the beliefs of every family member in turn? Do you believe no family gathering can be complete until someone has been slapped in the face? If you answered yes to any of these, then you’ll likely enjoy your time with the Weston family; just don’t expect Mama Violet to thank you for being there.