How many times have we seen the standard movie convention of a family forced to reunite for some special event that’s merely a catalyst for all of them to bring up the past and vent their frustrations? It’s one of those things you can see coming from a mile away, made even more obvious when you discover that they haven’t gotten together for several years, leading to the conclusion that there’s a reason behind it, and boy are you gonna hear about it if it’s the last thing they do. Such a convention can and has worked before, but at this point it’s become rather tiresome. How tiresome? Well, to the point where even an A-grade cast can’t save it.
In “August: Osage County,” the latest film to use this foundation, we first meet Violet Weston (Meryl Streep) and her husband Beverly (Sam Shepard). He’s hiring a live-in assistant, Johnna (Misty Upham), to help his wife, who has mouth cancer and is on a number of different prescription medications. One day, Beverly walks out the door and disappears, which leads several family members to show up, including Violet’s sister, Mattie (Margo Martindale), Mattie’s husband, Charlie (Chris Cooper), and Violet’s three daughters, Barbara (Julia Roberts), Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), and Karen (Juliette Lewis). It’s not long before they discover that Beverly committed suicide. After attending the funeral, a series of conflicts erupts, most notably between Violet and Barbara, turning what should be a mournful occasion into one of anger as they dwell on the past.
This is basically a film comprised of two hours of arguing, venting, and silly subplots. From nearly the very start, one character or another has something to complain about. This is only compounded when the entire family gets together, where it seems like everyone has something to get off their chest, particularly Violet and Barbara. We can see that there’s a very clear reason that these two haven’t gotten together for a very long time as they argue about various topics over dinner.
In an attempt to offset the continued squabbling among the characters, a few subplots are thrown in to try and help carry the film along, but they end up leaving little to no impact given how ridiculous some of them are. For instance, Ivy wants to run away and engage in a romantic relationship with her cousin… only we eventually find out that he’s not her cousin. Another subplot reveals Karen’s fiancé to be a pot smoker who offers his niece the chance to get high with him, leading to an awkward situation. Meanwhile, there are other parts that have little to do with anything in the film, such as a drawn-out monologue that has Violet telling a story about a pair of cowgirl boots she wanted as a child.
Something that does actually help the film along quite a bit is the fantastic ensemble that was brought together, which includes acting greats like Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Margo Martindale, Benedict Cumberbatch, Chris Cooper, and Sam Shepard. Streep, who seems destine to earn her eighteenth Oscar nomination with this performance, is in particularly fine form here as the drug-guzzling wife/mother who isn’t afraid to speak her mind. Roberts is also a standout as one of three daughters who have to put up with their mother’s wild and eccentric behavior.
Unfortunately, most of the others seem to be floating around in the background, not getting a whole lot to say or do. Cooper has a fair amount of scenes, but for the most part, they’re reduced to arguing with his wife about their son, played by Cumberbatch, whose part is likewise limited to a few minor scenes. With Shepard, it was understandable given that his part ends very shortly into the film, but for the others, if you’re going to bother getting people this good, at least give them a reason to be there.
That’s actually something that can be applied to the audience as well. There are some fine performances on display here, but it’s not enough of a reason for us to wade through a film that is nothing but two hours of arguing and venting. If there was a little something more to it, such as a subplot or two that didn’t elicit an eye-rolling reaction, then it might well be worth sitting through, especially when you throw in the great ensemble. Unfortunately what we get is a film that will merely have the audience venting their own frustrations with it. 2/4 stars.
Starts tomorrow in theaters everywhere.
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