August: Osage County (John Wells, 2013)
August: Osage County is based on playwright Tracy Letts’ Tony-award winning play about a family who reunite following the death of the family patriarch (Sam Shepard). Meryl Streep stars as matriarch Violet Weston, a complete psycho-bitch of a mother who is battling cancer and is addicted to prescription drugs. Much of the film focuses on her relationship with eldest daughter, Barbara (Julia Roberts) who reluctantly returns to her hometown with husband, Bill (Ewan McGregor), and daughter, Jean (Abigail Breslin) for her father’s funeral. Julianne Nicholson plays the most dependable (and thus most prone to her mother’s insults) middle child, Ivy, who is starting to find her own voice. Juliette Lewis is in fine form as youngest daughter, Karen, who is primarily concerned with her own happiness, who arrives with new wanky fiancé, Steve (Dermot Mulroney). Additional family members include Violet’s brash sister, Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale), along with her husband Charles (Chris Cooper), and awkward son, Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch). The housekeeper, Johnna (Misty Upham) acts as a silent witness to the events that unfold.
Clocking in at 121 minutes, the film has made numerous cuts from the three hour Broadway play. I have never seen the play and thus have little to say regarding comparisons, though I hear that lovers of the stage version were (inevitably) disappointed. Maybe it was because I didn’t have certain expectations, but I was thoroughly impressed with this film. Firstly, the cast: AMAZING. I remember being freaked out by the trailer because it was one huge name after another. Every single member of the cast did a phenomenal job. Meryl Streep is absolutely incredible, even by her standards. Forget The Iron Lady (Phyllida Lloyd, 2011), THIS is the performance of her career as far as I’m concerned. Then again maybe I’m just too overly impressed with actors acting crazy (she yells a LOT and is high for most of the duration of the film). Still, it’s ridiculous how consistently awesome she is in every single thing that she does.
The most interesting part of this film, for me, was the theme of parents being unable to avoid screwing up their children, which is often a result of the parenting skills of the previous generation. While individuals from dysfunctional families often vow to parent better than their own parents, it is not uncommon for certain negative aspects to rub off on them. Four generations of women are presented to us (including Violet’s own deceased mother who is alluded to at multiple points in the film). It is clear that Barbara (along with her sisters) has been negatively affected by Violet’s mothering, and in turn is trying to do a better job in her parenting of Jean. However, she is so irrevocably scarred that she can’t help but partially damage her relationship with her own daughter. Similarly, we discover that —minor spoiler alert— Violet’s mother was even more awful than she is, which accounts for Violet’s horrible attitude towards everyone. And so on the cycle goes… Depressing in a way, but offers some hope by way of each generation improving upon the last. We see some small indication that Jean is troubled, but she isn’t totally messed up yet. Fingers crossed.
Various family secrets are revealed throughout the short family reunion. Obviously I won’t spoil them for you but there were some sufficiently juicy ones which kept the plot interesting. The majority of the film is set inside the family home (with a bunch of extra scenes inside cars) which is unsurprising given its stage origins. It is not difficult to grasp the feel of this house – hot, dark, and filled with memories, many of them negative. It is perhaps then easy to feel somewhat claustrophobic in this full-on film, but you should relish that and be thankful you can leave the cinema and go back to your own life where your family are (hopefully) not quite so screwed up.