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Movie review: 'August: Osage County' powered by a phenomenal ensemble cast

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August: Osage County

Rating:
Star5
Star
Star
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Star

Some films have great casts and carry with them a great expectation for success. But few films assemble such superstars and actually utilize them fully. August: Osage County (opening today), is an oddly-named film that accomplishes the latter: It contains what is, without a doubt, the best ensemble performance of the year by a cast that is elevated by a sharp script and nimble direction.

The film stars Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Juliette Lewis, Benedict Cumberbatch, Chris Cooper, Margo Martindale, Abigail Breslin, Dermon Mulroney and Julianne Nicholson (and in a lesser role, Sam Shepard) all who give magnificent performances in their nuanced roles. Director John Wells, working on a screenplay from Tracy Letts, balances the cast with the delicacy of an experienced maestro, whipping this talented orchestra up into a splendid symphonic rhythm. Each member is given their time to shine, in scenes that move the story forward and are never unnecessary, before falling back and blending into the background as another instrument is showcased.

We meet the patriarch of the Weston family, Beverly (Sam Shepard), at the beginning and he soon disappears. We soon find out that if you had his family, you might do the same.

His wife is the bipolar, sharp-tongued Violet (Meryl Streep, who continuously gives the best performance of her incredible career with each character she embodies), who is on enough drugs to set up a pharmacy. When Beverly goes missing, the family returns to the Weston household in Osage County, Oklahoma, because...well, that's what family does right?

The only company Violet had was a live-in nurse (Misty Upham), whom she mistreats, and her middle-aged daughter, Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), who never left home. Ivy is a bit jealous that her other siblings were able to have flown the coop: Her older sister, Barbara (Julia Roberts) and her in-the-process-of-divorce husband, Bill (Ewan McGregor) along with their self-absorbed teenage daughter, Jean (Abigail Breslin). Then there is her younger sister, the clueless Karen (Juliette Lewis), who returns home with her douche bag beau, Steve (Dermot Mulroney) in tow.

Adding to the melee is Violet's sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale) and her husband Charlie (Chris Cooper). Their boy - Violet's nephew - "Little Charles" (Benedict Cumberbatch) shows up a bit later.

Now reading this, all the names and roles may seem a bit overwhelming and perhaps confusing. But each character is so well defined and simply introduced, you will have no problem telling them apart or making sense of who's who.

Mixing all of these folks together is like igniting a powder keg of emotions, guilt and hard-feelings. If nothing else, spending a few hours with the Weston family will make you realize how incredible your own family is, warts and all.

At its heart, August: Osage County should be labeled as a dark comedy, as there are many laugh-out-loud moments throughout. But there is such real drama at play too, that it is really a disservice to call it simply a comedy.

Yes, the film doesn't give us much more than dialogue and performances, much like the play that it's adapted from would. Many of the scenes aren't complicated and just feature actors acting. But what a joy it is to watch.

It is, at times, over-the-top and borderline silly, but the script eventually takes us in exciting and unexpectedly refreshing, new directions. Each character is dealing with flaws and problems, so it is easy to discover something relatable within the film. The movie has a beautiful way of making us care without ever rooting for any one person. We see why each character is in the position they find themselves in, but to expect deep epiphanies that lead to change is only something that happens in the movies.

This realness is what makes a great film like August: Osage County feel exceptional. By the time the end credits roll, I'm not sure that too much had happened, but I was thoroughly entertained that I was allowed into this world, if for a brief time. Family - and its inherent dysfunction - is universal, but it's always good to remember that things can always be worse.

Genre: Drama

Run Time: 2 hours, 10 minutes, Rated R

Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Abigail Breslin, Juliette Lewis, Ewan McGregor, Julia Roberts, Meryl Streep, Dermot Mulroney, Julianne Nicholson, Sam Shepard, Chris Cooper

Written by Tracy Letts (Killer Joe, Bug)

Directed by John Wells (The Company Men)

Opens locally on Friday, Jan 10, 2014 (check for show times).

Be sure to watch Tom Santilli on TV! Check your local listings for “Movie Show Plus” for Tom’s weekly movie review segment, airing at 10:30 p.m. EST every Sunday, on MYTV20 in Detroit.

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How to read Tom Santilli's "Star Ratings:"

  • 5 Stars: Exceptional, must-see movie
  • 4 Stars: Very good movie, not without flaws
  • 3 Stars: The movie was just OK, leaves a lot to be desired
  • 2 Stars: Pretty bad, a let-down, disappointing, but with some redeeming qualities
  • 1 Star: Awful, sloppy, a total waste of time
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