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Movie Review: 'August: Osage County' (2013) Starring Meryl Streep

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Violet Weston (Meryl Streep) takes pills and her husband Beverly (Sam Shepard) drinks. It’s a bargain they struck to cope with their lengthy marriage. Beverly’s last refuge is in his books (favoring T.S. Eliot), while his wife tipsily curses and staggers about the house, taking massive amounts of drugs and booze for her painful mouth cancer. When Beverly vanishes, Violet’s sister Mattie Fae Aiken (Margo Martindale) and her husband Charlie (Chris Cooper) arrive to console the sickly woman. They’re joined by Violet’s daughter Barbara (Julia Roberts), her husband Bill (Ewan McGregor), and their 14 year-old daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin), all from Colorado, at the Weston’s large Oklahoma house. Violet’s other daughter Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), who seems to quietly blend in with the background, harboring a secret romantic interest and contempt for being the only one to stay close (and therefore responsible) to her mother, is also present.

Once all the Weston women are in a single location, they can’t help but to argue. Violet’s moodiness, perhaps influenced by the plenitude of medication, encourages gossip and bitter insults. When the police find the body of Beverly, having drowned himself out on his boat, the third daughter Karen (Juliette Lewis) and her fiancé Steve (Dermot Mulroney) drive into town (in his showy red Ferrari) from Florida, to attend the funeral. Charlie’s timid son, “Little” Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch), broken up about missing the ceremony, meets the assemblage afterwards. As the extended family sets the table and prepares a feast, socializing turns acerbic, a blessing lacks sincerity, and inner feelings are incautiously unleashed upon an ill-prepared congregation of uncomfortable onlookers, led by the ranting, irritated Violet.

Writer Tracy Letts adapts his own Pulitzer Prize-winning play for the big screen – and it definitely feels like just that took place. The sets are few, the scope is limited, and the dialogue is abundant. This content is the type best observed via a stage show, as it doesn’t translate to theatrical material with any vibrancy and the edited footage reveals the pacing constraints of verbiage-heavy exchanges in a single room. While inundated with abrasive language and hateful remarks, there’s a darkly comic vibe running through the dour, antagonistic raving. A steady escalation of shouting and verbal aggressions turns into physical grappling and emotionally unraveling revelations for all.

As a character-driven drama, the film is largely uneventful and dragging, though the familial complications continue to intensify until everyone is not only at each other’s throats, but also wholly unpleasant. A black-and-white photo of a very young Streep, perched on Beverly’s desk, visually clashes quite ferociously with her current look – parading thinning gray hair, frowns, wrinkles, and bedraggled garments. It’s a drastically different role for the 17-time Oscar nominee – the unconventional, challenging kind that Streep seems to regularly gravitate towards. Roberts also dons less appealing styling and a dislikable attitude to play a stringent, controlling, and permanently miffed woman. But it’s also an amusing deviation from her typical, romantic, anticipated personas. Essentially, none of the numerous parts are sympathetic. In the end, as “August: Osage County” relates the seemingly inevitable transformation of children into their parents and the oftentimes unsavory responsibility of caring for mentally diminishing elders, the film becomes a disadvantageously obvious exercise in showcasing acting abilities over telling an absorbing story.

- The Massie Twins

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