August: Osage County Comedy

Feuding Family Film Review: August: Osage County

January 10, 2014Ben MK

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Home is where the heart(ache) is

By Ben Mk

The holidays have come and gone, and if you're like most people, you probably spent some of it at a family gathering. After all, 'tis the season for familial get-togethers (and for films about them, too). At first glance, August: Osage County may seem to echo a familiar refrain, and you may think to yourself, "I know what type of film this is: it's the kind where a prototypical dysfunctional family — the kind who hasn't seen each other in years — reunites, quashes old differences and learns to live in harmony." If that's the case, then August: Osage County begs to differ. Yes, it's about a dysfunctional family, and yes, it revolves around a family reunion of sorts; but the way in which it plays out is bound to pleasantly surprise even the most cynical of viewers.

Meryl Streep plays Violet Weston — the pill-popping, cancer-stricken matriarch of the Weston family — whose three daughters, bitter Barbara (Julia Roberts), down-to-earth Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) and flighty Karen (Juliette Lewis), have been summoned back to the family homestead in Osage County, Oklahoma, to deal with a crisis: the disapperance of their father, Beverly (Sam Shepard). Matters take a turn for the worse and soon the entire Weston residence is buzzing with house guests, including Barbara's estranged husband, Bill (Ewan McGregor), their daughter, Jean (Abigail Breslin), Karen's fiancée, Steve (Dermot Mulroney), Violet's sister, Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale), her husband, Charles (Chris Cooper), and their son, "Little" Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch). With so many people coexisting under one roof — not to mention the fact that some have brought their emotional baggage with them — a clash of personalities is unavoidable. Old wounds are reopened, new rifts are created, and the sheer volatility of it all threatens to blow the roof off of everything.

If the family tree seems overly complicated, rest assured: it just seems that way. After all, August: Osage County is based on the stage play by Tracy Letts, so it's only natural that the film features an ensemble cast — better make that a once-in-a-lifetime ensemble cast. Every single actor is spot-on in their role, and there's enough chemistry to fuel a whole other film — but two actors deliver especially noteworthy performances: Streeps, as the frail, yet feisty, Violet, who is also the rock-solid anchor for the picture; and Roberts, as the only member of the Weston clan with the guts to stand up to her. Roberts imbues her character with more ferocity than her portrayal of Erin Brockovich, matching Streep's intensity measure for measure, and it's a pleasure to watch the two go head-to-head in many scenes.

Had it been mishandled, the subject matter and the various plot threads could have easily devolved into a comedy of soap opera proportions, but director John Wells expertly navigates the emotional terrain to keep the film feeling grounded. It's effective without being emotionally manipulative or clichéd, and part of that has to do with the fact that not everything is tied up neatly by the time the closing credits start to roll. Just as in real life, the film shows us that relationships can get messy and people don't always change, no matter how much we'd like them to. Wells also keeps August: Osage County feeling relatable by choosing not to strongly rely on humor to carry the film. There are humorous moments to inject levity when needed, but at its core it's a drama, and the humor doesn't detract from that. That's not to say it's a downer — far from it; the film just manages to strike the right tonal balance between somberness and humor, keeping the audience invested and not feeling dejected.

The Bottom Line

August: Osage County is easily worth the price of admission, based solely on the strength and chemistry of its powerhouse cast. Not only does it possess charm and wit, but it also has a uniquely bittersweet quality, to be both heartwarming and hearbreaking at the same time. It feels real and relatable, and it doesn't fit the mold of your typical family reunion type film — and that's what makes it so refreshing. [★★★½]

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