An episode of Jerry Springer, but with A-list actors.
There isn’t much of a gap between overwrought drama and comedy, and “August: Osage County” hops that distance with ease. This film is bursting with hilarity, which depending on how much you were hoping for the scathing melodrama that this film purports to be is either fantastic or terrible news. This mindbogglingly stoic film features a cacophony of great actors all delivering typically great performances, is competently directed, and the writing, penned by Tracy Letts from his own Pulitzer-Prize winning film, is more-or-less immune from criticism. What then, makes this film so funny? Its very existence as a movie. On film, “August: Osage County” is incredibly silly.
When magnified by a camera lens, all the stone-faced hand-wringing, dirt-digging, name-calling, truth-telling and all that relentless snark from the play is transformed from something that probably worked extremely well on stage to something much goofier on film. The characters have ballooned into caricatures on-screen and feel more like plot abstractions than people. The plot, such as it is, creaks along as it churns out predictable turns and dramatic revelations meant to evoke some kind of reaction, which in my case was mostly a stream of varied laughter.
The fun begins, as it usually does, with Meryl Streep. Playing Violet, the aging vitriolic, cancer-riddled pill-addled matriarch of a three-generation family in rural Oklahoma, Streep gets to have a ball ripping everybody around her to shreds, like a deranged wolverine no longer concerned with its own survival. (Straight up, this is the best part of the film.) Violet’s three adult daughters, and Violet’s sister are gathering with their families at her home for one of those reunions in which nastiness abounds. Secrets are revealed, old wounds are re-opened as new ones are inflicted, and unwanted honesty abounds, though truthfully the only truth seems to be that none of these people should go anywhere near each other. If it wasn’t so comical it might be unpleasant.
The plot is mostly dependent on quiet moments of truth-facing and explosive moments of confrontational truth-giving, so I’ll keep mum on the details. I will howeer give you a list of all the characters and a snippet of their personalities to tantalize you with the possibilities: Barbara (Julia Roberts) is Violet’s eldest daughter, who received the brunt of Violet’s ferocity growing up and whose marriage with her shockingly ineffectual liberal husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) is falling apart and whose daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin) doesn’t really care for her. Violet’s middle daughter is Ivy (Julianne Nicholson,) who has stayed in town, forsaking a family of her own in order to help assist with her aging parents. Karen (Juliette Lewis,) Violet’s youngest has a brand new, sleazy-looking fiance Steve (Dermot Mulroney) to bring to the party. Rounding out the group is Violet’s sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale,) Mattie Fae’s husband Charles (Chris Cooper) and their twitchy, clumsy, and “slow” son Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch.) (Sam Shepard is in the film as Violet’s husband Beverly, but he bails from the film pretty early on so he gets a sort of footnote.)
In the end, I didn’t much care about this combative, cantankerous iteration of “The Greatest Generation” presented in this film nor the bitter children raised by them, well acted though they were. Based on real people or no, the characters were too artificial to relate with and the plot too contrived to be much more than a melodrama machine, albeit with a nastier streak than most. This is not to imply I didn’t have a great time at the movies though. “August: Osage County” was a lot of fun to watch, if for no other reason than than I got to see Julia Roberts tackle Meryl Streep. “Oh no she didn’t!”