Based on Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize winning play of the same name, August: Osage County is a rather jarring portrayal of family dynamics run amok. Bolstered by crazily strong performances from Julianne Nicholson, Julia Roberts, and Chris Cooper, August: Osage County is a film that finds few of its characters likable, pretty, or young, but therein lies the truth that can be found amongst the screaming.
Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard) has gone missing. It’s not the first time, but there’s an earnestness in Violet’s (Meryl Streep) voice when she calls her daughter Barbara (Julia Roberts) and her estranged husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) and insists she come immediately to the family’s home in Oklahoma. Within the next few hours, Violet’s other daughters Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) and Karen (Juliette Lewis) show up along with Karen’s “fiancée” Dermot (Steve Huberbrecht), Violet’s sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale) and her husband Charlie (Chris Cooper), her nephew Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch) and her niece Jean (Abigail Breslin). It’s a full house to say the least, and few are pleased to be there. It doesn’t take long to find out why, as matriarch Violet proceeds to rip them all a new one.
This film is about familial relationships spanning years of verbal abuse and marital strife, what years of such habits and personalities do to different members of the family, and how future generations are affected by the disfunction. There’s no sugar coating it, this film is not nice. It deals with a lot of taboo subjects and it’s exactly this reason that makes the film so captivating, but also fall slightly short as a story told cinematically. We learn so many troublesome secrets about this family over the course of a couple days that it gets to be overkill by the time incest rears it’s ugly head. But it goes to show that once one card is on the table, all the other 51 are sure to follow.
What keeps the script and story together is the performances, primarily of Nicholson, Roberts, and Cooper. There is yelling and fighting in this film that borders on the melodramatic, but it toes the line well because of the caliber of the cast. This is definitely material well-suited to a stage play, where larger than life characters can be given full reign to fill the stage and the house. Letts also wrote the screenplay for this adaptation, but I question whether he is able to reformulate these characters and situations to fit the confines of the screen.
What Letts does handle well is the black humor which is palpable. There are many moments of true hilarity given the subject matter, including a dinner scene that could rival any to come before or after. The scene is also a wonderful acknowledgement to the cast as a whole, and seeing them interact with each other is a train wreck you can’t look away from.
This film won’t resonate with everyone but it does have some insights into the ties that continue to bind (or break) families with complicated histories. Difficult choices must be made to break with the family of yesterday in order to create a family for tomorrow.
August: Osage County opens today in Philly area theaters.