Wednesday, 1 January 2014


Roadshow Films

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And you thought your family had issues. Releasing at the time of year when most families have experienced some form of holiday-induced implosion, August: Osage County will (hopefully) make your recent family Christmas dinner showdowns look like a picnic in comparison.

Based on the award-winning stageplay by Tracy Letts (who also adapts here), and directed by John Wells, August: Osage County is about the Westons, a mid-western family who, in the process of gathering to mourn their patriarch (a briefly seen Sam Shepard), decide it's also the perfect time to unleash years of pent-up frustrations, resentments, and disappointments, as well as to air some skeletons and dirty laundry.

And leading the charge is the newly-widowed Violet (Meryl Streep). Suffering from mouth cancer, and popping her various medications like they were candy, Violet isn't about to let the death of her husband dull her wits or muzzle her sharp tongue. She doesn't pull her punches and no one -- from eldest daughter, Barbara (Julia Roberts), to only grandchild, Jean (Abigail Breslin) -- is safe.

"You are in rare form today, Vi," comments brother-in-law, Charlie (a sympathetic Chris Cooper), at the post-funeral family lunch, and he might as well be talking about Streep herself. Violet Weston is the kind of role any middle-aged actress would love to sink her teeth into and Streep does just that. Yes she's chewing scenery but she does so with such menace and mirth that you can only watch in delighted awe (and be thankful that you're on this side of the screen).

Still, it's not the Meryl Streep show. August: Osage County is an ensemble piece and Wells, while he doesn't provide all that much in the way of directorial distinction, has assembled a terrific cast. Julia Roberts gives her best performance since 2004's Closer (another stage-to-screen adaptation about unlikeable people), as the daughter who moved away, married beneath her (an under-served Ewan McGregor) according to Violet, and lives with the fear that she's becoming more and more like her mother. The film is at its best when these two go head-to-head; even better when they literally throw down.

Juliette Lewis, as the flighty youngest sister, Karen, who also left Osage County and brings her latest beau (a comical Dermot Mulroney) to this family gathering, and Julianne Nicholson, as the middle sister, Ivy, who stayed close to home but may be about to finally spread her wings with the help of her cousin, Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch), are also good.

But it's veteran character actors Chris Cooper and Margo Martindale who are perhaps the film's MVP's. Cooper's Charlie may be the closest approximation of a decent person the Weston family has, and his defence of his son against his mother's constant disapproval is arguably the film's most poignant moment. And Martindale's Mattie Fae, jovial though not without venom, may be the only person whom Violet actually likes. Blood is thicker than water and although she would have good reason to, Violet seems disinterested in spilling Mattie Fae's.

Like the aforementioned Closer, and 2011's Carnage, another stage-to-screen adaptation about people you're quite happy to watch rip each other apart, August: Osage County deploys words as weapons: wittily, brutally. It's fun to watch, even as you may squirm in recognition at some of the Weston family's foibles. "Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way," wrote Tolstoy, to which Tracy Letts subscribes with blistering, entertaining effect. The Westons' pain is the audience's gain.

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