Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Review: "August: Osage County" Has a Lot of Great Performances... and Meryl Streep

Julia Roberts, Meryl Streep, Julianne Nicholson
Left to right: Julia Roberts, Meryl Streep, and Julianne Nicholson
The appeal of director John Wells' August: Osage County is that it pits many talented actresses against each other in a fight over family dysfunction through varying generations. Lead by Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep, this adaptation of the Tracey Letts' play is an effective slice of drama that lets characters shine and even tear into each other with a vibrant, hostile script that makes one hot weekend in Osage County into a pivotal point in the Weston family's life. It may at times suffer from overacting, but at its core, it is an engrossing family case study.

The subject of dysfunctional families has been done to death in the past. There is very little area that can be covered in regards to shocking or even uncovering something deeper. As society has evolved, people have become more jaded. What sets this particular film apart is not necessarily the hostility, but the nuances and lack of understanding that each of the three generations have towards each other. With Violet (Streep) being the eldest, she reflects a forgotten era when things were less fortunate and has become comfortable in her deteriorating health conditions and inability to properly sympathize with anyone else. While the daughters and granddaughter are all less hostile than her, there are stems of ignorance that come through in their behavior through different catalysts.

At the heart of the Weston sisters is Barbara (Roberts), who takes on the most responsibility upon her mother's decline. She is fierce, mean, and desires things to go her way. As the story progresses, she is the link between the past and the future with her daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin) and isn't making the best with what is given. There are frank, uncomfortable conversations around the dinner table and nobody seems to show compassion or understanding to things that are different from the established normality. They pray as a family and bond over the very idea of being related and little else. There is little else to connect them as they all have their flawed lifestyles that seem sinful at a broad view.

The key to the film's success is that Barbara is a magnetic character. Even if she eventually becomes as repulsive as Violet, she is given no choice. Her aggression and desire for order are reflected through shouting matches and crass language that intimidates. Even among all of the discussions, very little of the family's issues become explored too much in depth because everybody is too upset. It is only in connotation and implications that the story unfolds in a fascinating, intriguing way. Julia Roberts is a commanding force that is shocking, mean, and the glue to the film's more problematic areas. 

The film has a stellar cast as well. The most notable supporting player is Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), who is the more subdued, responsible sister with a levelheaded approach to the incidents. She rarely has a need to scream and ends up serving as the voice of reason because she is the one who took time to negotiate before making conclusions. Much like the other characters, she has a conflicting, perverse relationship that develops throughout the story only to come out in surprising and effective ways. Charlie (Chris Cooper) is also excellent as Violet's husband who also seems to be fighting for respect. He serves as the moderator for the dinner table arguments and helps to make the pacing of the hostility work.

If the film has any problems, it is that visually, it is unimpressive. A lot of the shots are simplistic and add no artistic flare to the project. Scenes linger on conversations that allow the performances to do the heavy lifting. Thankfully it works because of the performances that range from tolerable to grating and the script that allows all of the subversive jabs to be effectively sting in a manner all too real. The only other issue really is Streep, who is fine, but when asked to perform enthusiastic monologues, becomes a little much. She manages to make the character feel loopy and out of touch, but the lack of humanity placed within the character makes her argumentative nature seem more campy than real. Comparatively, the other actresses are more complex and add weight to every nasty comment they make throughout the film.

August: Osage County is not a perfect film, but it does have a lot of vitriolic enthusiasm in its execution. It is a character story that manages to dissect a strangely interesting family in ways that at times feel exploitative. With a charismatic lead by Roberts, the subtle reveals of the family's many, many flaws paves the way for a third act that may feel simple, but perfectly sums up the issues with improper communication. It has plenty of memorable moments scattered throughout, but with occasional shines of repulsive overacting, the final product feels just as flawed as the Weston family actually is.

Chris Cooper, Benedict Cumberbatch
Left to right: Chris Cooper and Benedict Cumberbatch
Like most people, I was turned off by the actual trailer. It seemed a little goofy and felt more like a catty film in which a bunch of talented actresses got together to yell at each other. There didn't feel like there was going to be much of a story. With the Oscar nominations revealing that both Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts had been nominated for acting awards, I felt the need to eventually see it and give it a fair shake. As my review suggests, I came away liking it and its very twisted and strange look at family life when stuck under the same roof for one weekend. 

I cannot say that I am personally upset by it only receiving two nominations. The film effectively executes a fascinating acting set piece for a lot of performers. I would even argue that its wordy script was more deserving of a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination than Captain Phillips, though that film feels more timely and important with its subject matter. I cannot properly judge what is missing from the Letts' stage version, but what is present is a lot of engrossing moments that definitely call for the dramatic tension necessary to make the film work.

As stated in previous entries however, I cannot quite understand Streep's nomination here. In general, I have had issues with her receiving 17 Oscar nominations, which I feel dilutes her credibility and frankly makes her a tad overrated. She turns in serviceable work here, but there are moments where it feels more caricature than sincere. She is arguing in unconvincing manners and her old southern style never quite shines through this content. Even Chris Cooper, who pretty much exists at points to encourage her, seems to do his part to convince the audience that Streep is acting crazy. She isn't. She is simply overacting in an unappealing fashion. 

I am actually enthused by Julia Roberts' nomination. Her performance is something special. Yes, she does overact at points, but the aggression and commanding presence that she has is nothing short of impressive. Along with Mirror Mirror, she is in the midst of a welcomed comeback that suggests that she is going to take on ambitiously divisive roles. If it is anything like the shockingly effective performance here, I welcome it. My only concern is that she isn't capable of winning the Best Supporting Actress category, which also features front runner Lupita Nyong'o (12 Years a Slave) and Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle), who both feel like the front runners. In fact, according to statistics website Gold Derby, Roberts is in fourth in the race with odds of 50:1 while Nyong'o leads with odds of 1:10.

There is little chance that August: Osage County can win the acting categories much like how Dallas Buyers Club seems to threaten the male categories. There is too much weight thrown towards other performers at this point. Also, with August: Osage County itself being a divisive film with very little attraction at the box office, it does seem like it would take a miracle for Roberts to pull ahead. The nomination was well deserved, but it does feel like come awards night, this film will be one of the more underlooked of all nominees, save for maybe Nebraska below it.

Can August: Osage County pull an upset? Is Julia Roberts on the verge of a comeback and eventual future Oscar win? Is the Oscar Bias towards Meryl Streep overkill at this point?

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