Friday, January 10, 2014
August: Osage County
The film opens in the Weston family's dark house in Osage County, Oklahoma. Still in bed upstairs, Violet (Meryl Streep) looks horrible. She has little hair left due to chemotherapy for mouth cancer which has not stopped her from chain-smoking. When she opens her mouth but not for sucking on a cigarette, she pops in a pill or two. Downstairs, her alcoholic poet husband Beverly (Sam Shepard) is hiring a Native American helper Johnna (Misty Upham). As soon as Violet comes down and speaks, we can tell that her cynical spirit roots much deeper than the agony caused by her cancer and her painkiller addiction.
Soon after, Beverly disappears (or escapes from Violet). Their three grown daughters are summoned back to the house. The resentful eldest Barbara (Julia Roberts) comes with her parting husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) and their rebellious 14-year-old daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin). The soft-hearted middle sister Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) lives nearest to Violet, but that's about as far as closeness goes. However, Ivy is ready to make a big change and move away with her secret love—the shy and not-so-bright little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch), the only son of Violet's sister Mattie Fae Aiken (Margo Martindale) and brother-in-law Charles Aiken (Chris Cooper). Then the never-stop-yapping youngest Karen (Juliette Lewis) drives in from Florida with her bad-boy fiance Steve (Dermot Mulroney).
Although nobody expects this is going to be a happy reunion, few could have imagined how devastating the melodrama escalates. The pot begins to boil as soon as they arrive. By the time they sit at a dining table together, they begin to be terminated off one by one like in the Hunger Games. And without a question, Violet holds the commanding lead.
Thanks to script-writer Tracy Letts's brilliant original play, the characters of the film are memorable and colorful. It's wise for this screen adaption to remain faithful to the play, and to retain most exceptionally written dialog. As a consequence, some of the scenes do look like a stage production, but that doesn't seem matter much with so many characters in a topsy-turvy turmoil.
The superb performance from an all-star ensemble cast makes the film even more entertaining. While the one and only Meryl Streep is robustly at her best as always, Julia Roberts stunningly gives her best performance in years. And it's a pure delight to watch Margo Martindale and Chris Cooper disappear into their characters effortlessly.
In the film, Meryl Streep spills every Violet's word like throwing out poisoned flying daggers, without any mercy or empathy. And many people say hurtful things toward their supposed loved ones. They struggle with their own anger, regret, frustration, disappointment, guilt, resentment, and any other emotion that can still be squeezed in an overwhelmed mind. Some of them try to contain their emotion, others simply give up and blast off.
These lively characters look and sound sympathetic, but strangely, it seems unlikely for us to connect to them emotionally. As if we are passing a terrible traffic accident, we take a look at the aftermath to fulfill the curiosity, and then we can move unmoved and unattached. But it serves a perfect water cooler topic the next day. That's the kind of quirky amusement the film provides, and its spectacle about a dysfunctional American family is simply hard to resist.