Directed by: John Wells
Premise: An adaptation of the play by Tracy Letts. A family gathers at their Oklahoma homestead upon their father’s death and old family secrets and tensions bubble to the surface.
What Works: August: Osage County is a movie that is worth viewing simply for the pleasure of watching great actors portray nuanced and complex characters and deliver sharp dialogue. This film is led by Meryl Streep as the matriarch of the family. One of Streep’s extraordinary qualities as an actress has been her ability to disappear into her roles. Many actors who achieve her level of success and fame tend to carry too much celebrity noise into their projects but Streep is consistently convincing in her roles. Meryl Streep’s other remarkable quality has been her willingness to take on nasty characters without straining to make them likable. Both of Streep’s qualities are played to full effect in August: Osage County. Streep plays a difficult and frequently cruel woman whose unpleasantness has probably driven her husband to suicide. It helps that the film gives Streep’s character some sharp dialogue; mean characters are always more enjoyable if they have something clever to say and Streep consistently delivers cruel insults that are amusingly awful. In a similar way, Julia Roberts is also impressive as one of three daughters. Roberts is an actress who has generally played nice characters and she typically possess a lot of celebrity noise that makes her distracting when she plays anything other than a romantic lead. But in August: Osage County, Roberts is much better than usual. Her presence as a movie star is muted and she is well cast as the most direct recipient of Streep’s derision. This is a movie about people who are worn and hardened by the disappointments of life and Roberts’ character is bitter and angry but she is also given the most to do as she wrestles with the discovery of family secrets. Roberts contrasts with Julianne Nicholson, who plays the younger sister. Nicholson possesses an innocent quality and she hints at a subtle hope for the future. Over the course of the story those aspirations rise and fall and her hopes and disappointments play quietly over her face. The supporting cast of August: Osage County also includes Benedict Cumberbatch as a cousin and Cumberbatch contributes a lot to his part. The actor is typically prone to bravado as seen in his performances in films like Star Trek Into Darkness and the TV series Sherlock. In August: Osage County, Cumberbatch is much more nervous and nuanced and although the script does not give him much to do the actor contributes a lot of subtleties that characterize his part and make him a fitting companion for Nicholson’s character.
What Doesn’t: Although August: Osage County has some great performances, the picture is lacking in its storytelling. A common error in family dramas is the continual addition of subplots and complications. This movie does not settle for one or two or even three conflicts; the filmmakers keep piling on the dysfunctions but they never follow anything through to a conclusion. As a result the movie is unfocused. The audience’s sympathies are not invested anywhere and the movie gets exhausting, like listening to the ramblings of a drama queen. In a way, August: Osage County takes on the veneer of a freak show, as the filmmakers trot out one family outrage after another and dare the audience to gasp and laugh but make no efforts to resolve these issues. As a result, August: Osage County does not really come to a finale; it just stops and nothing is won, lost, or affirmed by the end of it.
Bottom Line: August: Osage County is worth viewing for the acting talents involved and the film does sport some impressive performances. But the movie is ultimately hollow and it leaves the viewer wondering what it is they just saw.
Episode: #476 (February 2, 2014)