Film Review: August: Osage County
121 Minutes, R for extended dialogues about vaginas
Fair Value of August: Osage County: $15.00. Great acting, fun script, well paced. But if I wanted to see a bunch of drunken, drug-abusing, incestuous, adulterous, hypocrites shouting at each other while breaking crockery, I’d attend a family reunion.
Is the Ubiquitous Cumberbatch present? I will say this for that weird limey pseudo-human; I may not appreciate his acting ability, but I admire the hell out of his ability to negotiate good provisions from selling his soul to the devil. The ubiquitous Cumberbatch has milked his 15 minutes with greater thoroughness. However, Osage County shows just how over-rated he is. When he is matched up against Meryl Streep, I could only be reminded of the dramatic differential between Keanu Reeves and Al Pacino in The Devil’s Advocate. Cumberbatch can’t pull off an Oklahoma twang, and his performance reminded me of a shabby impression of Forest Gump.
Will there ever by a non-dysfunctional Southern family? Not in drama, certainly. Every generation, it seems, must excoriate their parents through a funeral play. It is necessary to rationalize our abandonment through demonization. And boy, is this ever an assault upon the failings of the baby boomer generation.
This new drama by Tracy Letts (Killer Joe, Bug) focuses upon the gathering of the Weston clan after the death of the family patriarch. Scene by scene, the clan widens, as the dispersed daughters of Bev (Sam Shephard) and Violet (Meryl Streep) return from across America. There’s Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), the resentful daughter, who remained in hicksville; Barbara (Julia Roberts), who struck out for academic success; and Karen (Juliette Lewis), the romantic ditz. Violet has terminal cancer and a heavy pill addiction. But it’s not going to a pity party. No, this high plains matron is going down with her claws out. She’s a twitching, fumbling mess of pain in a high toupee, and this reunion is her opportunity to lay into her children for their distance from her life.
Violet is a vicious composite of the failings of the baby boomers. She’s Martha from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf, only without a husband to lay into. She eschews formality even at the funeral party, cussing up a storm and loudly declaiming everyone’s sexual foibles. She’s a Southern matron of the new age, eclipsed of tact or politesse. Drug abuse, narcissism, mistaking brutality for honesty, and mocking formality as weakness. It’s a pretty good justification for abandoning one’s mother.
It Ain’t an rural American family drama without a Faulknerian Idiot Man-Child: The script is effective by placing the audience in an egotistically superior position to every character in the play. There isn’t an admirable person in the Weston-Fordham clan; even the deceased Bev Fordham is shown to be a cheating alchoholic who coasted on his early fame. It’s a show of schadenfreude- pure sadistic pleasure of watching a family explode in a cross-fire of accusation, confession and revelation. And that’s what I didn’t like about the story. It smacks of privileged Manhattan people looking down their noses at the aspirations and dysfunctions of the Midwest. It’s as good an imitation of Tennessee Williams as you will see, but it never feels like a story told from somebody connected to the actual life of the High Plains. At a certain, point, I just got tired of the cascading revelations. I longed for some skeletons in the closet that weren’t the predictable tropes of incest, abuse, and drugs.
Of the supporting cast, Julianne Nicholson stands out. Her Karen Weston has the dry scowl of the socially deprived, a mean-ness and plainness that feels more authentically like a small town girl than her sisters. It’s a pity that most of her dialogue is wasted on a hammy Benedict Cumberbatch and his reheated Tom Hanks impression. Julia Roberts puts in a very good perfromance right up to the climax, where she overacts and makes her character look ridiculous.
All told, August: Osage County is a mean little kick of dramatic whiskey, a good antidote for a filmgoer who’s overdosed on sentimentality. It’s going over familiar dramatic territory, but there’s still vigor in this tale of middle class animosities.