Friday, January 24, 2014

August: Osage County

Oscar Wilde once wrote, “All women become like their mothers; that is their tragedy. No man does; that is his.” August: Osage County explores many disappointments, but none more so than the displeasure felt by children of emotional abuse upon seeing their parents in the mirror. Based on Tony Letts’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play of family dysfunction, August: Osage County may have lost a little electricity in the transfer from stage to screen, but razor-sharp writing and pitch-perfect performances make for a captivating adaptation.

Pill-popping matriarch Violet Weston (Meryl Streep) calls her daughters home after her alcoholic husband, Beverly (Sam Shepard) goes missing. Ivy, the middle daughter, (Julianne Nicholson) is the only relative already living in town besides Violet’s sister, Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale) and her husband, Charles (Chris Cooper). Oldest daughter Barbara (Julia Roberts) arrives with her husband, Bill (Ewan McGregor) and 14-year-old daughter, Jean (Abigail Breslin), and youngest daughter, Karen (Juliette Lewis), brings her sleazy new fiancé, Steve (Dermot Mulroney). Over a period of days, tensions come to a boil as the Westons wrestle with disappointment, loss and the inescapability of family.

For all of their similarities, theater and cinema remain different mediums with different strengths. Live theater offers the intimacy of being present, a movie camera creates intimacy of a different sort, and any movement between those worlds will change the overall impact of the material. That change can be good or bad; recent stage-to-screen adaptations Doubt and Frost/Nixon excelled on the big screen. August: Osage County makes solid use of scenery and setting, but with the performances, the camera cuts both ways. Close-up shots enhance some moments, but for others, I wish the camera had stayed wider to include more faces. Close-ups tell you where to look, but at a play, you look where you want. August has so many master chefs in its kitchen that the camera sometimes seems in the way.

Letts’ dialogue, cutting so deftly between comedy and tragedy, demands great performances, and this ensemble delivers. At the helm stands Meryl Streep, a living legend at the top of her game, chewing scenery in the best sense of the term. She sells Violet as a cruel (“not being mean, just truth tellin’”), domineering woman tipping into instability. As the eldest daughter, Julia Roberts throws fire like I haven’t seen from her in years. Julianne Nicholson breathes quiet, complicated life into Ivy, the daughter who stayed in town and bore the brunt of her mother’s spite. I could go on about every performer; there isn’t a weak link in this chain.

As great theater often does, August: Osage County withholds key information until the right time, hitting the viewer with multiple bombshells. There’s an exhilaration as the tumblers click into place, revealing new layers of sadness just when it seems there can’t be any more. People sometimes laugh in the midst of tragedy, saying that they have to laugh or else they’d cry, and that effectively sums up August: Osage County’s bleak humor. At a certain point, comedy becomes a survival mechanism; there’s humor amidst the madness because there has to be. There’s something in this cornucopia of sadness and dysfunction for everyone to relate to; spanning illness, addiction, emotional abuse, divorce, and above all, disappointment, August: Osage County mimics its main character in exaggerating reality, often harshly, in order to do its own truth tellin’ about life.

For the Parents:

MPAA: Rated R for language including sexual references, and for drug material

August: Osage County maintains strong language throughout and deals exclusively in mature themes.

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