Sunday, December 29, 2013

August: Osage County (****)

Directed by John Wells


Meryl Streep is a goddess amongst us mere humans; it's essentially been a known fact that she is our greatest living actress since the beginning of this century, possibly beforehand. I've been known to get fatigue amongst the wave of Streep Worship, convinced that most of the power behind the Streep myth is that she snatches up all of the few great leading roles for women and hogs them all for herself - I still haven't even seen The Iron Lady though I still haven't stopped rolling my eyes over the thought of  her winning her third Oscar for it. But August: Osage County represents the best of what Streep has to offer, a five-course meal of emotions both hilarious and tragic, headlining a phenomenal ensemble cast and playing an instrumental role in their performances. This is what makes Streep the legend that she is. It's not purely the acting (for my money, Julianne Moore and Laura Linney both have higher ceilings and more range), but the fact that her power, her persona and above all, her famed and strict professionalism keeps all of her co-stars in top form as well. She is the LeBron James or Magic Johnson of film acting. She always makes her teammates better.

August: Osage County is an adaptation of the 2008 play by Tracy Letts which won the Pulitzer Prize that year for drama. Letts wrote the screenplay for this film version and proves that it's not always a disaster when a writer adapts their own material - Stephen Chbosky made the same point when he successfully adapted his own book, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, just last year. Letts stuffs the screenplay with grandiose speeches made of the same kind of cruel, revelatory statements that are on par with the greats by Tennessee Williams or Edward Albee. That all of the chess pieces are filled with game players ready to chew into the material makes its all that much better. No one seems more game than Streep herself, though that is mostly because no other character in the film is more vociferous. Letts' play was a comedic hurricane of familial tension, but Streep turns the entire production into a darkly-tinted farce, too bleak to hide behind laughs. Perhaps it's because I've never seen the play that I don't feel that Streep tuning down the humor was exactly a bad thing. Directed by television veteran John Wells, this is a film that knows exactly where it's strengths lie and exploits them to its fullest potential.

Streep plays Violet Weston, the tempestuous matriarch of the disgruntled Weston family. Violet's husband, Beverly (Sam Shepard), is an alcoholic and not afraid to admit it. He was a famed poet in earlier years, but now lives alone with Violet who herself has a dangerous pill addiction. He discusses this all with Johnna (Misty Upham), a Native American housemaid whom he hires to help cook and clean while Violet goes through chemotherapy sessions for mouth cancer. After a day on his boat, Beverly goes missing for days and Violet sounds the alarms for her whole family to come back home and support her in her distress. This includes her equally outspoken sister, Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale) and her husband Charles (Chris Cooper) who join Violet's middle daughter, Ivy (Juliette Nicholson), in the Weston home. Soon afterward, they are joined by the oldest daughter, Barbara (Julia Roberts) who has also brought along her husband, Bill (Ewan McGregor), despite their ongoing separation, and their angst-y fourteen-year-old daughter, Jean (Abigail Breslin). The family is immediately contemptuous, especially Violet who fires at everyone, but saves the most dangerous shots for Barbara whom she still blames for moving away to Colorado and breaking Beverly's heart.

The worry for Beverly is soon stunted when he is discovered drowned in the nearby river where he'd taken his boat. His death is met with anguish from the family, with the exception of Violet who greets the news with drug-addled confusion. The sudden death brings along even more family, including the son of Mattie Fae and Charles, Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch), a clumsy and soft-spoken young man who has more secrets then he lets on. Also arriving is Violet's youngest daughter, Karen (Juliette Lewis), who brings along her new fiance, Steve (Dermot Mulroney) - a sports car-hauling Florida business man with little in the way of manners or decency. Karen is thrilled to be engaged to such a successful, financially stable man, though the rest of the family can tell that it blinds her to all of his many, obvious faults. Under the same roof, the entire family fights more than they speak, the blending of clashing personalities and past hurt colliding into a non-stop thunderstorm which Violet spends a majority of her time trying to turn into a hurricane.

Much was made of the hiring of John Wells as director. Considering the pedigree of the cast and the expectations of the production, you'd think the Weinstein Company would have pushed for a filmmaker that has a little more than The Company Men on his feature film resume. Most of his credits are as a producer, and a lot of that is in television, but Wells' direction is very smart here, making Letts' play cinematic enough to be dynamic on the screen while also remembering that it's Letts' words that holds all of the film's power. Letts piecemeals out her speeches, each character getting their moment of revelatory heartbreak, but Letts and Wells both understand the context in which to place all of these soliloquies so that the highly-organized format isn't too apparent. The maturity with which August: Osage County chooses to tell its story was impressive for me, mainly because the film's promotion campaign advertised it as a predator of prestige hunting for Oscars. And while the casting is a bit on-the-nose where that kind of thing is considered, it's hard to ignore just how much Wells guides this cast into a situation where they work together around the story in about as much of a theater atmosphere as you're going to find in a movie these days. 

There should be no debate, though, that this is an actor's film, with nary of poor role in the bunch. Some characters are more thankless than others, but each one is given their moments of either grace or aggravated eruption. It's a collection of Oscar clips tied together into something that somehow manages to rise above it all, a melodrama that manages to feel honest about the human condition. Cumberbatch, Cooper and McGregor all play even-spirited men caught in the crossfire of their dysfunctional women, dodging the threats and the flying plates, while Mulroney plays a pot-stirrer - he's the kind of man who turns these kinds of women into the forces they become. Martindale and Lewis are both given terrific scenes, both showing different generations in the kind of delusion that can get you through a life of mistakes followed by future mistakes. Martindale's Mattie Fae is at least aware of her faults, as she reveals to Barbara in a heartbreakingly honest moment, but Lewis' Karen has a whole future of heartbreak awaiting her, even as she buries all of the problems of her family underneath her faulty engagement to the flawed Steve. Breslin's Jean is an innocent bystander, already perturbed by her family's archaic traditions and behaviors, she's forced to grow up in a hurry when her family begins to crumble in front of her.

But we all know that the main event in this marathon of top-notch performers is the collision of Streep and Roberts, two movie stars of such transcendent talent and fame that they've reached a level where you have trouble dissociating their celebrity from the roles they choose. This is more so for Roberts who has spent thirty years attempting to move past her Pretty Woman image. She's never quite done so, not with Erin Brokovich, not with Closer, but it doesn't really matter considering she was one of the biggest movie stars of the last three decades. Streep, on the other hand, is so famous because she's so good, her greatness in a film already implied by the very gracing of the movie with her presence. Their meetings at the precipice of Osage County's most spirited moments makes up this movie's greatest moments, and while Streep has no peers, Roberts steps up for the role of Barbara, unafraid of the character's brash self-righteousness. I haven't seen two women perform so well together since Annette Bening and Julianne Moore were side-by-side in 2009's The Kids Are All Right and I feel the same way about those performances that I do about Streep and Roberts: it's almost impossible to praise one performance without praising the other; their fusion giving the film all of its magic.

With all of its hype, I had actually found myself with low expectations for August: Osage County and perhaps that's why this review may seem to be overcompensating. But I'm just so surprised (and I'm sure this confession will seem silly to anyone who has any previous history with the play) at how little the film panders toward middle class family emotions, how raw the dialogue and the performances that spoke them were. Gone is the manipulative nature of some of the other Weinstein Oscar bait, with only the bare performances left behind. Yet, the quality of the filmmaking is so sharp and disciplined, unlike most play-to-film translations (check out Sidney Lumet's interminable version of Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night for an example of how a play can quickly become bloated on the big screen). I'm not sure the film's promotion really shows how powerful this film actually is, and I'm not really sure that it can. It's delicious dialogue is its best kept secret. Any box office traction will have to be based on the celebrity of its cast and the inevitable magnetization of awards. This will be the first time since 2002's Adaptation that I'm not annoyed at Streep hogging up one of the five Best Actress nominations.

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