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Kidney jokes: Movie review of 'August: Osage County'

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Landing an incest kidney donation joke can’t be the easiest but like all things Meryl Streep does she delivers it with panache. No one could fault August: Osage County for acting, well maybe a few actors weren’t as strong as Streep, but basically everyone landed their roles. Streep’s Violet Weston is not a likeable woman despite her wit and cynicism. In fact few of the characters were overly likeable a brother-in-law, a set of cousins (Flowers in the Attic if you know what I mean) and the lady with a Native American background the patriarch of the Weston clan hires before…well, I won’t spoil anything more in that regard. Suffice to say the bulk of the action happens during an impromptu family reunion.

August is based on screenwriter Tracy Letts’ play of the same name. Many reviewers have noted that the stage version is more satisfying than the film and although I have not seen the play, I can see how some of the lines would have more impact in a live theater versus watching the film at the local Cineplex or at home. Maybe I would not have cared so much if characters on a stage suddenly made their final theatrical exits wearing their PJs as I did watching it on screen. (I mean seriously, I get the motivation for wanting to drop everything and leave, but still how many people suddenly venture a lengthy trip from the vast Oklahoma prairie to Denver in the middle of the day wearing only their nightgown? Did she even have her purse?)

Now that the Academy Awards have come and gone and neither nominated Meryl Streep nor Julia Roberts took acting trophies home, I take a step back and wonder if August: Osage County was primarily made in hopes of being an Oscar dream catcher (Harvey and Bob Weinstein were two of the film’s producers). The movie is overstuffed with prestigious actors of all stripes. Along with the before mentioned Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts (in much need of a Clairol touchup) there is Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Abigail Breslin, Benedict Cumberbatch (who if I am not mistaken has made an appearance in all English speaking films released in 2013) Juliette Lewis, Margo Martindale, Dermot Mulroney, Julianne Nicholson, Sam Shepard, and Misty Upham. I will give the movie credit that unlike too many movies recently, this large cast of familiar names and faces was not a hindrance to the story.

Basically the plot, what there is of it at least, revolves around Streep and Roberts. Apparently everyone in, or related to, the Weston clan has secrets but no intrigues miss the notice of Violet who despite her much altered states proves not to be the type of lady who would let a thing like propriety get in the way of her “truth telling.” In many ways August: Osage County is like your family’s dysfunctional Thanksgiving meal except with more attractive people tossing mean spirited bon mots over a broken gravy boat. On a deeper level the plot centers around finding the where-to-all to emotionally cut your losses in order to live a less self-involved but more satisfying life.

I think the question any potential viewer of August needs to ask is if the angst is worth their time, effort, or potential rental fee (the film’s DVD is set for release on April 8, 2014). In contrast, 12 Years a Slave is a brutal film to watch, but the audience walks away with a deeper appreciation of the agonies of slavery (it transcends the mere idea of slavery into the psychological mine field of how does one survive slavery if one finds they cannot escape it) whereas August left me glad I had seen the film because of the performances but empty as far as the resolution.

What August does have going for it is Streep and Roberts. One thing I realized while watching the film when it debuted on local screens in January, is that Meryl Streep has become the ultimate movie star. No one would dispute she is an actress of the highest caliber, but she is a star in that she motivates people who seldom go to movies to go. Although the audience mumbled at the end of the film about its conclusion, Streep’s name was mentioned only with praise. I bet the most devoted movie fan could not recite the names of her children, but if a film was made with only Streep reading from the 1977 Evansville, Illinois telephone book people would still show up in droves – at least for opening weekend.

In comparison Roberts since Pretty Woman has been one of the first names people think as movie stars. I consider Roberts is a decent actress but her acting has always been eclipsed by her movie star status. Like Streep she has a large following, but much of that depends on her appearing in roles that reinforce her as one of America’s sweethearts. Of course just how long she can carry that mantle is debatable especially with the recent death of her sister who criticized Roberts through social media. If the situation demonstrates one thing; it is that fame is not for the weak willed.

I recommend August: Osage County with trepidation. Know what you are getting into before sitting down for a movie night. Yes, there are some great lines and even some deep belly laughs, but this isn’t the sort of film that invigorates you to face life’s sometimes overwhelming dilemmas, as much as one that makes you hope the family is paying Misty Upham’s character every cent she is worth.

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