Friday, January 10, 2014

August: Osage County

Ain't family dysfuncion fun? If you could condense a single message from the two-hour running time of August: Osage County this, it appears, is all the film has to say. Having not seen the play of the same name by Tracy Letts I don't know if the source material was any deeper, but since Letts alone adapted the play for the big screen I'm betting he didn't make many significant changes.

The movie's plot centers around the various troubled, bitchy, deceitful, and argumentative women of the Weston family who all return home to (theoretically) help their cancer-ridden mother (Meryl Streep) after their father (Sam Shepard) runs off and leaves her only a Native American nurse (Misty Upham) for support, because apparently Indians and racially-inappropriate comments from seniors are hilarious.

What follows, of course, is a series of fights, disagreements, the airing of family laundry and secrets, and the long overdue discovery by the entire group that they are all far better off separated by great distances.

Violet's (Streep) family consists of the controlling Barbara (Julia Roberts), her ex-husband (Ewan McGregor) and daughter (Abigail Breslin), Barbara's sister Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) who is secretly in love with her cousin Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch), and the youngest sister Karen (Juliette Lewis) who shows up engaged to a sleazy businessman (Dermot Mulroney). We're also introduced to Charles' parents (Chris Cooper, Margo Martindale) who are harboring a few secrets of their own.

There's plenty for the actors to do on-screen and the performances aren't among the movie's weakest links. Streep is obviously having fun swapping and playing Shirley MacLaine's role from (the far better) Postcards from the Edge. Cooper brings his usual steady calm, and both Nicholson and Roberts do what they can to try and make us care for the various family drama. Sadly the performances overwhelm the script as the movie is more a collection of scenes to show off the various cast than offer a compelling tale. For me Cumberbatch, taking on a far less-assured role than I've seen him in the past, is the only performance that is actually in service to the story and not simply Oscar-bait.

The lesson future filmmakers should take away from August: Osage County is that family dysfunction in and of itself isn't interesting, entertaining, or funny. The performances are all fine, but the movie simply doesn't have anywhere interesting to take these characters. Released around Thanksgiving, Alexander Payne's far more successful Nebraska (which I heartily recommend) deals with similar issues of family dysfunction while crafting a story that's about more than just family members yelling at each other for two full hours.

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