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August: Osage County (2013) Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts. Dir. John Wells

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August: Osage County


I went into August: Osage County expecting to be put off by the hammy acting on display from the big name cast, but honestly none of that bothered me in the slightest, as everyone on screen seem to be having a great time with the performances and the dialogue, and this movie is wildly entertaining ride.

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I say that everyone looked like they were having a great time onscreen, which is surprising considering the bleakness of the material. Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Tracy Letts (who also adapted script), August tells the story of a highly dysfunctional family who gathers together in the wake of the father's suicide (Sam Shepard), who seems to have finally given up after all these years living with his wife Violet (Meryl Streep), the matriarch who exists to make everyone's life a living hell. Violet's now dying of cancer (ironically, mouth cancer, as Shepard notes), succumbed to drug addiction, and things are only getting worse. When Shepard decides to remove himself from the situation, Violet's three daughters and their significant others all come home to face the monster, and family secrets start flying fast and loose.

This is a black comedy of sorts, as some of the insults are so over the top and mean-spirited it leads to full on physical confrontations that can't help but provoke astonished laughter (the scene where Violet's oldest daughter Barb lunges across the dinner table at her own mother's throat is particularly memorable), but the skeletons in the closet that are revealed are somewhat cliched of dysfunctional families in the movies (long ago affairs, etc.), and the fights that are provoked by character's interactions in the film are a tad predictable, in my opinion. Frankly, this material is extremely melodramatic and I'm shocked that the play won a Pulitzer Prize, but perhaps it plays differently on the stage. As a movie however, it's never less than entertaining because despite the familiar situation, the acting elevates the drama and Meryl Streep turns in another dominating performance as the nasty, manipulative Violet Weston who is never less than completely in control of everyone around her.

Streep sometimes has a tendency to draw attention to herself in her character roles, but I was always convinced that she flat out was this crazy woman, from her first appearance on the screen. She inhabits her fully and though the role is inherently big and showy, to me she felt like a real person, however awful and damaged that person is. The poisonous barbs fly out of her mouth with a venomous glee, but it's fun to watch, simply because when Mery Streep commits to a character like this, it is always something to see. For her part Julia Roberts is also very good in this movie as Barbara, the angry eldest daughter who is already on her way to becoming her mother. For me Roberts has always seemed to possess a hidden sardonic hostility beneath the surface of her smiling demeanor, and here she finally gets to let loose and the bitterness comes across as genuine and earned by the rotten childhood provided by living in such a disturbed household. Other standouts in the cast include Margo Martindale and Chris Cooper as Violet's sister and brother-in-law, who are more subtle in their performances (somebody had to be), but just as effective as part of the ensemble, and the two younger sisters and victims of Violet's wrath are Juliette Lewis and Julianne Nicholson, both very good as well.

The cast works well together in fact, and though TV veteran John Wells could be described as providing a kind of flat direction to the proceedings, I don't know how much more can be done with the material, which is primarily an actor's showcase set over a few scenes in one house. The most that could be said for this is that it's a movie that could have been on TV, given the inherent melodrama of the play itself- but for what it was, I was highly entertained from start to finish, and the actors make the experience worthwhile.


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