'August: Osage County' review: Film destined for Oscars

Rating

4 Stars4/5

Bruce Kirkland, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 4:13 PM ET

The showpiece film August: Osage County is headed to the Oscars, if not in the best picture category then in some acting races, and certainly for its screenplay by playwright Tracy Letts. It really is that good as a hyperactive, overwrought, plate-smashing drama about a dysfunctional American family.

On a grander scale, August: Osage County is probably also a metaphoric examination of the dysfunctional American psyche in the New Millennium. But that may sound too highfalutin for a film in which Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts and other familiar faces get together to fire venomous insults at one another for two hours. The literal plate-smashing, one great physical catfight involving Streep and Roberts, plus a scene in which a pervert is smashed with a shovel, is comic relief. We desperately need this because the film, and the family it depicts, is so damned depressing.

As a film, August: Osage County arrives in the tradition of Giant (1956), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) — all co-starring Elizabeth Taylor in her prime — as well as Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) and dozens of other titles, too.

The dysfunctional family should be considered as a Hollywood genre of its own.

As a stage play, August: Osage County premiered at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre in 2007. Letts won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2008. He did his own screenplay for director John Wells’ faithful (if shorter) film version. The bittersweet play ran more than three hours, so obviously some of that richness was sacrificed. That said, two hours is about all anyone can take in a cinema while witnessing the drunken and drugged-out antics of the Weston family.

The story takes place mostly in and around the family home, located on the dusty plains outside of Pawhuska, Oklahoma, in the heart of Osage County. It is summer, during a suffocating heat wave. The matriarch of the Westons (played by the scenery-chewing, scene-stealing Streep) does not turn on the air conditioning.

In the prologue, we meet the patriarch (Sam Shepard), a once-famous poet who now drinks, quotes T.S. Elliot on the eternity of life and hires a new maid (Misty Upham), to care for his wife. Streep’s matriarch is a profane, angry, chain-smoking harridan suffering from mouth cancer. Addicted to prescription drugs, she also undergoes extreme mood swings.

As in the play, Shepard suddenly disappears. This event triggers a chaotic family reunion, with significant others included. They discuss, debate, argue and fight about what will come out of this crisis. Enter a large and absolutely fascinating, diverse ensemble led by Roberts (who is at her best, for a change). Others in key roles include Chris Cooper, Ewan McGregor, Margo Martindale, Julianne Nicholson, Dermot Mulroney, Juliette Lewis, Abigail Breslin, Will Coffey and even Benedict Cumberbatch in a surprisingly tender role as Cooper’s mentally challenged son. Director Wells lets them loose on Letts’ beautifully constructed and pithy dialogue, while trying to make this look as much like a film (and not a play) as possible.

By the end, watching the film version of August: Osage County is like joining the party scene in All About Eve. As Bette Davis says, “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night!”

Twitter: @Bruce_Kirkland

bruce.kirkland@sunmedia.ca

 


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