As the credits begin to roll after watching “August: Osage County” (2013) and you are left sitting in that slightly darkened, manufactured butter smelling theater, you will hear the inevitable murmur throughout of everybody saying their instantaneous thoughts on the emotional roller-coaster that has entertained them for the last two hours. The one word you will hear most is “dysfunctional,”and a truer word was never spoken. This drama film, based on the play by Tracy Letts (who also wrote the film’s screenplay), is about a dysfunctional family coming together (physically, not emotionally) after the death (apparent suicide) of their patriarch, Beverly (Sam Shepard). His pill-popping, foul-mouthed, cancer-suffering wife, Violet (Meryl Streep), is the kind of over-bearing, loudly opinionated person that everyone hates having to visit, and because of her (as well as her deceased husband’s drinking) their family has become quite estranged over the passing years, providing a backdrop for plenty of drama, tears, laughter, and disturbances on the most solemn occasion.
The family consists of three daughters. The eldest, Barbara (Julia Roberts), is separated from her husband (Ewan McGregor), and is also trying to raise a teenage daughter (Abigail Breslin), despite the ever-growing distance in their relationship. (Barbara and her daughter are quickly on a path that will lead to a similar relationship as the one Barbara shares with her mother.) Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) is the second daughter, who has remained close to her parents (physically, not emotionally), is still single, but now sees this family gathering as a chance to air some of her true feelings and run away with her secret love. The youngest daughter is the eternally immature Karen (Juliette Lewis) who brings her fiance, the smooth-talking, slick, shady businessman (Dermont Mulroney) along for the fun, or rather the lack of fun.
Then there is Violet’s loyal and equally opinionated sister, Mattie (Margo Martindale), her husband (Chris Cooper), and their quiet, yet sweet son (Benedict Cumberbatch) who add some good fun to the mix, especially considering the fact that Mattie doesn’t even really like her son. If that wasn’t enough, we have a Native American caretaker (Misty Upham), who Beverly conveniently hired two days before his death. (Apparently he knew that one sane person was needed under this roof.)
“August: Osage County” is a movie (or rather a play) that has obviously been inspired by the great dysfunctional character studies of the past, such as Tennessee Williams’s “A Streetcar Named Desire”, “Night of the Iguana”, or perhaps more comparably, Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”. It’s stories such as these that made a lasting impression on Tracy Letts, and good or bad, he has followed in their footsteps, creating this mixture of pain, sorrow, and family dysfunction.
The direction here by John Welles is passable, which is to say there is nothing wrong with it, even if there is a level of inexperience that does shine through. He doesn’t get in the actors’ way, and that is an accomplishment in itself, as this is an actor’s film. The entire cast is perfect. There is not one person who seems out-of-place or feels overmatched. All of these gifted and talented people being in one two-hour movie, mostly shot within the confines of the darkened, sweltering, claustrophobic home could have been disastrous, but because the entire cast comes together, they are able to create an acting clinic, so to speak.
As was bound to happen here, Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep are the two attention grabbers. Their performances (and the miserable characters that they play) are so strong, loud, and dominating that it can actually be hard to see anything else that is happening. The acting that these Hollywood legends do here is perfect- in fact they might be a bit too perfect. The strength of their performances, combined with the already heavy subject matter at hand, creates a film that feels as if you (as the audience) are being weighted down. Every time either one of these talented ladies walks (or fumbles) onto the screen be prepared because you’re about to be taken for a ride.
Although the acting is phenomenal, it’s not quite enough to save the overall production. There’s just too much… well, dysfunction to go around. Still, I figure that it will be quite some time before there is another gathering of this much acting talent sharing the screen. Hopefully next time it will be a comedy.