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August: Osage County (2013)

| January 18, 2014 | 0 Comments

August: Osage County is a miserable experience.  For all it’s incredible acting talent, the story is a family drama about people so petty and hateful that sitting at their dinner table is like being on a crowded bus with a bunch of mean drunks.  Trailers for this movie would have you assume that this is a movie about a family that learns the meaning of bonding.  It’s not.  This is a movie about a lot of spiteful, hateful, bull-headed, mean-spirited people who throw mean, hurtful insults at one another like a family reunion edition of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” It is about as much fun.

Based on the Pulizer Prize Winning play by Tracy Letts (who also penned the screenplay) August: Osage County works through the playbooks of Eugene O’Neill, Anton Chekov, Thorton Wilder and Edwin Albee, imitating their works but, not honoring them.  Letts replaces human feeling with cuss fights, and we’re left at the dinner table with people that we wish would just go away.

The story takes place in the far-flung, sun-baked landscape of Oklahoma, where we meet a long-married couple Violet and Beverly Weston whose connective marital tissue is that they enjoy hating one another.  Beverly (Sam Shepard) is a poet who has a loving relationship with his booze.  Violet (Meryl Streep) is suffering from mouth cancer and is taking so many prescription drugs that she’s become an addict.  We sympathize because of her condition but, in truth, Violet is a vile, bitter woman whose entire vocabulary is made up of acid-tinged insults that she happily flings at anyone in her hemisphere – the fact that she has mouth cancer is both literal and a metaphor.

Beverly goes out on his boat one day, but doesn’t come back alive – some say accident, others say suicide.  Upon his death, a flock of relatives descend on the Weston home, including Violet and Beverly’s three daughters: Barbara (Julia Roberts) who is just as bitter as her mother; Ivey (Julianne Nicholson) who is solemn and quiet most of the time; and Karen (Juliette Lewis), a giddy chatterbox who is forever bragging about her honeymoon.  Also included are Beverly’s brother Charles (Chris Cooper), Violet’s sister Mae (Margo Martindale), their son Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch); Barbara’s cheating husband Bill (Ewan McGregor), and his 14 year-old daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin).  Take a good look at the talent involved here and consider that much of the movie has these people either shouting or hitting one another.  Worse is that they are so predictable that you start counting the minutes until someone throws a dinner plate.

There are a lot of personal problems among this family; grudges, dormant feuds and petty arguments that come to light as this family gathers.  Somewhere you might have reason to expect some measure of understanding.  You expect some resolution, but it never comes.  After the funeral, the family gathers at Violet’s dinner table for a long scene that is so unpleasant that you want to put your fingers in your ears.  Violet seats herself at the head of the table and begins doling out her opinion of everyone and everything at the table. The finale is that she gets into an argument with Barbara that is so hate-filled and angry that we’re not surprised when it ends with the two of them in a violent confrontation on the living room floor.  The rest of the family is no better.  Over the next few days, they take the opportunity to air their dirty laundry, so we get horrifying revelations of mistaken paternity, pedophilia, infidelity and even incest.

It is never a requirement that all movie characters must be likable, but there must be some emotional foothold for the audience.  What did we do to deserve these people?  While it’s true that the familial bitterness is generational (the movie makes that abundantly clear) shouldn’t there be someone with the sense to put it to an end?  The family grudges and fights send the family members scattering back to their respective lives, leaving only Violet and Barbara.  Both are husbandless and have the potential to find comfort in one another, but, it never happens.  By the end, the one character we have come to sympathize with is Beverly.  He has opted out of the family sickness and, much to our surprise, we kind of understand why.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2013) View IMDB Filed in: Drama