Friday, January 17, 2014

August: Osage County



The review of a single film or other work of art can only begin to answer the question of what makes a work “American”, but the question is very much at hand when thinking about Tracey Letts’ family play August: Osage County. The characters based on Letts’ Oklahoma family are dwarfed by the country, the bleakness of their childhoods, and the passing of time itself, but they persevere. What could be more American than that? The Pulitzer Prize-winning play is now a film written by Letts, directed by John Wells, and cast with a mix of stars and recognizable old pros. Letts has changed and opened his play for the screen, but the film shares qualities that I think a good production of the play must possess. John Wells and his cast give the work a deep respect and rumbling anger that ultimately transcend issues with the adaptation and make August: Osage County something that is worth braving the multiplex on a Saturday night.

There isn’t a plot to August: Osage County so much as incident followed by a series of realizations. The incident is the disappearance of Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard), an alcoholic writer who has apparently grown tired of his pill-addicted wife Violet (Meryl Streep) and life in the wide Oklahoma country. Violet is the center around which everything else in the film revolves; it’s a role for an actress of great power and Streep makes the most of it with a performance that honors the depth of Letts’ writing. There’s a scene of Violet recounting an old childhood slight to her daughters that is as easy, natural, and moving as anything I’ve ever seen Streep do. What causes some to write off the performance as Oscar bait are in fact problems in the writing. I’m not sure Violet (who takes pills to deal with the pain from mouth cancer) ever really feels like an addict though Streep nails a couple of scenes of drug-addled hysteria. Violet also seems able to kick the pills quickly, allowing the second half of the film to become a flood of confrontations and revelations. Beverly’s disappearance brings the family home to Oklahoma, with Letts paying the most attention to oldest daughter Barbara (Julia Roberts). We haven’t seen Roberts in a little while, and I can report that she has lost of her talent for playing very specific gradations of anger. Barbara, like her mother married to an academic (Ewan McGregor), is furious both at her own circumstances and at the idea that she is the next generation of Violet’s terrifying personality. Streep and Roberts do excellent work together, and after things blow up at the funeral dinner (a marvelous scene of cross-talk smothered by Violet’s neediness) there is a final fight and a leave-taking that feels like a genuine fresh start. These are two of the best performances of the year.

Other characters bounce through the house and get caught in the crossfire. It’s always good to see Juliette Lewis (as Barbara’s sister Karen), but when she and her fiance (Dermot Mulroney) leave abruptly its begs the question of how much we needed them in the first place. I loved the hard-bitten resignation of Julianne Nicholson’s Ivy, the sister who stayed behind, and the sheer vivacity of Margo Martindale as Violet’s sister. Benedict Cumberbatch, Chris Cooper, and Abigail Breslin are also on hand, each making the most of what time Letts and Wells allow them. (Though I’m not sure the character of “Little Charles”, played by Cumberbatch, actually works off the page.) While the stage play takes place entirely in the Weston house the film expands the characters’ world by necessity. Letts adds scenes in a doctor’s office, outside a church, and in a field with mixed results. The scene of Barbara going off on Violet’s prescription-happy doctor is a reminder that despite everything these people are family, while Violet’s run through a field and Barbara’s comeback (“There’s no place to go.”) are far too obvious. Just the simple shots of characters coming and going in cars have their place though, especially seeing Ivy come back again and again when we know how much of her life she’s keeping hidden. Not everything works, but Letts and these actors succeed in putting over the idea that the Westons have each been shaped by forces and events long in their past and by the place that none of them seem able to truly escape. There is more sunlight on screen in August: Osage County than there should be in the stage play, but Tracey Letts’ conception of just what a “home” is remains a powerful dark cloud.

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