Judge Patrick Naugle refuses to eat his fish.
Misery loves family.
It's a swelteringly hot August in Pawhuska, Oklahoma. Alcoholic Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard, Safe House) has gone missing while his wife, the shrewish Violet (Meryl Streep, The Devil Wears Prada), is struggling with oral cancer and too many painkillers. Five days after Beverly's disappearance, the sheriff shows up to let Violet know Beverly has been found dead in a local lake. This sad news brings in Violet's family, including her snippy daughter Barbara (Julia Roberts, Erin Brockovich), Barbara's estranged husband Bill (Ewan McGregor, The Impossible), and their teenage daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin, Zombieland); Barbara's sisters Ivy (Julianne Nicholson, Law and Order: Criminal Intent) and Karen (Juliette Lewis, Natural Born Killers), as well as Karen's shifty fiancée (Dermot Mulroney, The Grey); Violet's sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale, Million Dollar Baby), her husband Charlie (Chris Cooper, The Muppets), and their son "Little Charles" (Benedict Cumberbatch, Sherlock) who harbors a terrible secret. As the Weston family collides, their dysfunction will threaten to tear apart an already fragile family.
When I saw August: Osage County with my wife, I remember turning to her and saying, "This is like watching the Manson Family Reunion Special." While the film's inhabitants aren't quite that terrible, I wasn't that far off. It's a story filled with characters that act and curse as if they just walked out of a "David Mamet 101" workshop. They're shrill, biting, foul mouthed folks whose sole purpose in life is hurting their immediate—and not-so-immediate—family members. While it sounds like I'm complaining, I'm not. This is a biting, sometimes touching, and often laugh-out-loud funny account of how a family unravels from the inside out.
August: Osage County is based on an original stage play by writer/actor Tracy Letts (the William Friedkin directed films Bug and Killer Joe were also based on his shows), who allows his characters to walk into a room like the destructive tornado that took Dorothy into the land of Oz. Only here the whirlwind takes the Westons to places where they crack, break, and destroy. If the energy on stage is anything like the movie, I can only imagine it's a darkly tense two hours for the audience. (Editor's Note: The theatrical version is three and a half hours long with two intermissions). No character comes out of this ordeal clean, and every performer gets the chance to chew the scenery like an all-expense paid week-long visit to the Old Country Buffet.
Secrets are revealed, feelings are hurt, and relationships un-spool faster than you can say Tullahasse, Oklahoma. The screenplay is set up to let the actors shine, and shine they certainly do. Though August: Osage County was not the awards darling many had anticipated, it still managed to snag both Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts Oscar nominations. Violet and Barbara are the center of the Weston clan's tumultuous history, and these actresses not only pick up the ball and run with it, but sprint across four states to get to the finish line. Meryl Streep is at her most seething and unlikable as Violet, a bubbling cauldron of anger and bile, never ashamed to expose the Weston underbelly to gain the upper hand. Roberts' Barbara verbally spars with what seems to be logic and calm, but even that devolves into a far worse emotional state.
Clearly, August: Osage County is a film a lot of actors wanted to work on, considering the talent level director John Wells wrangled. The acting on display is top notch, with considerable praise going to Martindale and Cooper as a married couple whose long and tumultuous history hides more skeletons than a WWII graveyard.
As we barrel through the story, things go from bad to worse. It's like an action movie, except instead of guns and explosions, Letts (adapting his own script for the big screen) uses vowels and syllables as weapons of mass destruction. Violet lobs verbal grenades and then watches them take out everyone nearby. Barbara isn't as nasty as her mother, but it's clear the prodigal daughter has taken on many of the same despicable traits. Because so many of these characters are so unlikable, it makes anyone halfway decent all the more sympathetic.
Having spent a great deal of time in television, John Wells (E.R.) just sort of stood back and let the actors perform this film as a stage show and let the camera run. There are no flashy sets or camera tricks, just characters given room to breathe, spew, and attack. Wells allows the people in Letts' world to be themselves, which ends up being the best decision he could have made. It shouldn't come as a surprise to learn that one of the film's producers is George Clooney, who always seems to have a knack for finding interesting and off-beat material to bring to the screen.
Presented in 2.40:1/1080p HD widescreen, Anchor Bay's August: Osage County (Blu-ray) gives the film a sometimes hazy feel, especially during the outdoor scenes. While the picture looks clear without any defects, the imagery doesn't really pop. The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track is excellent, the biggest boost coming in the form of classic rock tracks by Eric Clapton and Billy Squire. Otherwise, this is a dialogue heavy film that sports a strong center channel. Also included are Dolby 5.1 tracks in French and Spanish, as well as English SDH, French, and Spanish subtitles.
Bonus features include a commentary from John Wells and cinematographer Adriano Goldman, deleted scenes with optional commentary, and two production featurettes ("The Making of August: Osage County" and "On Writing with Tracy Letts").
I'm not sure as I would classify August: Osage County as a fun movie, due to its subject matter. There are times when it traverses some dark areas of the soul, and the ending provides little relief for the characters or the viewer. Yet, even with these dark undertones, its fantastic performances and crackling dialogue are a joy to behold. If nothing else, the film reminds us that our own family life isn't really that bad.
A blistering account of a family on the edge of madness. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
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