Review: August: Osage County (TIFF 2013)
PLOT: After their family patriarch goes missing, the estranged Weston family reunites at the home of matriarch Violet (Meryl Streep)- a cantankerous woman with an acid tongue. Her daughters, Barbara (Julia Roberts), Karen (Juliette Lewis) and Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) all return home with their significant others, for a reunion chalk-full of painful revelations.
REVIEW: John Wells' adaptation of Tracy Letts' AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY is a film that perfectly encapsulates how tricky a festival like TIFF can be. Going into the fest, it seemed like a guaranteed front-runner for this year's Oscars. It boasts a marquee cast, a screenplay by Letts himself, and to boot- it's a George Clooney production.
But, at TIFF, where it went up against movies like GRAVITY, 12 YEARS A SLAVE, and PRISONERS, AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY was hopelessly outclassed. It went the way of THE FIFTH ESTATE, where nobody would all-out call it a bad film, but then again, no one could say it's exceptional either. While Meryl Streep and possibly Julia Roberts still seem like a good bet for an Oscar nomination (this is a Harvey Weinstein production after-all), it can't be denied that AUGUST is just a decent movie.
The source material is great. Tracy Letts strikes me as the closest thing we have to a Tennessee Williams nowadays, and having adapted his own play, the dialogue is distinctly his own. This is an incredibly foul-mouthed movie, with the characters throwing around the “c-word” the same way the “f-word” is used in movies like GOODFELLAS. Letts makes the filthy dialogue sounds almost poetic, and an opening monologue by Sam Shepard, in his only scene as the family patriarch Beverly, is honest-to-god brilliant.
However, while Letts' source material is respected, the film still feels somewhat too polished. John Wells is a good director (THE COMPANY MEN was underrated) but seems like too conventional a guy to take on Letts. When discussing the film after the screening with some of my fellow journos, one asked me to imagine the film if it were directed by someone like William Friedkin, who's already demonstrated a kinship with Letts through BUG and KILLER JOE. Friedkin likely would have made a far less commercial movie, as under Wells it feels like little more than a blatant attempt to impress the Academy.
The most obvious evidence of that is the cast. Meryl Streep is great as the borderline-insane Violet, but this is a big performance in the vein of Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. In her hands, Violet is almost demonic, not helped by the big black fright wig she wears, along with an oversized pair of black sunglasses. She looks, and acts like a monster. Ditto Julia Roberts as the “tough” daughter Barbara. Roberts seems to be relishing the change-of-pace role, but that in itself seems like a problem. She looks like she's enjoying herself too much, and whenever she goes toe-to-toe with Streep, it's like an “over-acting Olympics”. They seem so bent on stealing scenes from each other, co-star Julianne Nicholson, as the kind daughter Ivy, completely walks away with the film, and seems like the one who really deserves some Oscar consideration.
Part of me wondered if the film might have been better had Streep switched roles with Margo Martindale who plays her shrewish sister Mattie Fae. The difference between the two is that while Mattie Fae is monstrous in her treatment of her son- family black sheep Little Charles (Benedict Comberbatch is a relatively small but poignant role)- she's still recognizably human as opposed to Streep. Between Martindale and Nicholson- not to mention Chris Cooper as Martindale's put-upon husband Charles- this is a movie where the supporting cast always outshines the stars.
Nevertheless, by virtue of their status alone, Streep and Roberts will probably get a lot of attention over the awards season, even though I'm not convinced either really deserves it. AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY is a fine film, but it could have been a great one had rather than making the film pure Academy bait, they had focused on making it feel “right” instead. Rather, it makes Letts' work seem overly stylized, and maybe even a little phony.