Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Film Review: John Wells & Tracy Letts' August: Osage County

When I say something along the lines of Julia Roberts gives the best damn performance of her career in August: Osage County, it is not all that bold a statement.  After years of playing in films below her ability (she is actually a fine actress, just a bad role taker, as it were), it would not be that difficult to overtake such performances as those found in the silly slapstick rom-coms, holier-than-thou melodramas, and cheap wouldbe thrillers, the actress is so fond of finding herself.  On the other hand, when I say a statement such as, Meryl Streep gives her career best performance in August: Osage County as well, then we are in definite bold statement territory - damn bold statement territory, indeed.  Is this all true though?  Well ladies and gentleman, hold onto your hats and bonnets, because it may very well be true. Perhaps to keep the hyperbolic owls at bay, I should probably rearrange that latter statement to read, if not the best, but surely one of La Streep's finest performances, but such a downgrade should not hide the fact that her performance in August, a performance that has garnered the iconic actress her ever-increasing unprecedented eighteenth Oscar nomination, is right up there with her jobs in Sophie's Choice, Silkwood, and Ironweed. So there.

In truth though (and Streep's mean-minded matriarch prides herself on being a truth teller) it is not just Streep and, more surprisingly, Roberts who run away with this film, for this is a production, as should be the case with such a stage play turned motion picture (at least ideally), that is chock full of bravura performances - a stacked deck, if you will.  Beyond Streep and Roberts, as mother and daughter Violet Weston and Barbara Weston-Fordham, we also get a slew of stunning and powerful (and all those other appropriate adjectives and descriptives) performances from the likes of Julianne Nicholson as middle sister Ivy, Juliette Lewis as baby sister Karen, Margo Martindale and Chris Cooper as Violet's sister and brother-in-law respectively, Benedict Cumberbatch as 'Little' Charles, woebegone cousin to the three sisters, Dermot Mulroney as Karen's lascivious fiance (my wife tells me that Mulroney can play sleazy with the best of 'em), Ewan McGregor as Barbara's wandering husband, Little Miss Sunshine Abigail Breslin as their fourteen-going-on-forty daughter, and Sam Shepard as family patriarch Beverly Weston.  Not a dud in any of these performances. Personally I think Nicholson, Martindale, and Cooper should have been awarded Oscar nominations as well, but then again, maybe that's just me.

Based on Tracy Letts' award-winning play, and adapted for the screen by Mr. Letts himself (the film is directed by John Wells, best known for his role as exec producer on TV's Southland), August: Osage County is the story of a dysfunctional family living in the small town plains of Oklahoma.  And when I say dysfunctional, I mean that in the whole nine yards kind of way.  As the film progresses, more and more layers are peeled away, onion-like, and more and more skeletons fall out of the collective family closets, each one a bigger and more disturbing revelation than the ones that came before.  Layer upon layer, skeleton piled up on skeleton, this cast keeps pushing the so-called envelope, further and further and further along, until the inevitable explosion happens, and everything is laid bare, and ugly, and psychologically scarred what could very well be far beyond any thoughts of repair.  Letts' words are a big big part of this, of course (Hitchcock's idea that the three most important things in a movie are screenplay, screenplay, and screenplay, will always be a truism to a point), but if not for the courage of the fearless cast, this Minnow could very well be lost - but not to worry, for they are more than up to the difficult task ahead.  Dare I even say that this is the most well acted movie this critic has seen in a long long long time.  Bravura indeed, and brava as well.

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