Sunday, January 19, 2014

August: Osage County (Theatrical Review)

August: Osage County (2013)
Drama, 121 minutes
Directed by John Wells
Starring Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Chris Cooper, Ewan McGregor, Julianne Nicholson, Margo Martindale, Abigail Breslin, Dermot Mulroney, Juliette Lewis, Sam Shepard and Benedict Cumberbatch

I was surprised to find my local theater almost full for today's viewing of August: Osage County. I had assumed that with the movie being in the second week of its run, and the NFL Championship games on TV, I would have the place to myself. That says a lot about the appeal of Meryl Streep, who is probably the best actor we will ever see. The first thing I noticed was that there was a lot of grey hair present in the audience, and I briefly enjoyed the fact that most audience members were older than me for once.

Despite being listed as a drama, the movie produced plenty of laughs. However, most were in sympathy or shock at the darkness of the subject matter. The laughs came because the movie so keenly observes how dysfunctional families can be. The Weston family takes that theme to the extreme and cannot boast a single member that comes close to what we would consider normal.

If you have seen Eraserhead and remember the scene where Henry Spencer meets his girlfriend's family, you might begin to approach how uncomfortable the atmosphere in the Weston household can be. The opening scene introduces us to Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard), who writes poetry when his alcoholism allows. We quickly realize why he feels the need to escape reality when we meet his wife, Violet (Meryl Streep). She's almost permanently high on a cocktail of pills, and has the appearance of a zombie in these opening shots. Her husband decides to leave in the first few minutes of the story, and we eventually learn that he has committed suicide. This sets off an incredible chain of events as family members start showing up to offer their condolences and attend the funeral.

The movie was adapted from a play, and it feels like it throughout the two-hour running time. This is a story which only uses two or three settings, and most of the time we are in the Weston's home. The acting on display is terrific across the board. As much as I admired Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine, Streep's performance was better. I highly doubt that she'll beat Blanchett on Oscar night because of the nature of the story, but the performance is the best I have seen all year. Despite Streep's towering performance, her supporting cast had a lot to contribute. Julia Roberts deserved her Supporting Actress nod, but I would have to say that every character was portrayed well.

Some of the confrontations in this movie are powerful and memorable. Streep's showdown with Phillip Seymour Hoffman in Doubt came to mind a few times as some of the arguments in August: Osage County sizzled and boiled over. One of my favorite scenes involves Chris Cooper saying grace, and in a way it's a microcosm of the entire movie. There are also a couple of major surprises along the way, and I certainly won't reveal them here, but if you're a fan of dialogue and the portrayal of human interaction, you'll admire this movie. That doesn't necessarily mean you will want to see it repeatedly and add it to your home movie collection, but it's worth seeing at least once.

The reason I think it will be ignored at the Oscars is Streep's previous track record and the fact that this story is so unsettling and ugly to experience. That said, the acting took my breath away at times, and I enjoyed seeing the story unfold. I loved listening to Streep, Roberts, Chris Cooper and Julianne Nicholson deliver their lines. I wouldn't consider the movie a fun watch, despite the dark humor, but it does a lot of things extremely well. Like Lincoln, this is one you'll grab from the shelf when you are starving for intelligent dialogue and masterful acting, rather than the sheer pleasure of some movie plots. You'll might well be reminded of chaotic conversations you've had with your own friends or family.

I'll always be amazed at how Meryl Streep seems to become the person she is playing on the screen. It's different every time.

Overall score 4/5

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