“August: Osage County” Movie Review

     Two of the finest actresses of our time deliver two of the best performances of the year, and of their careers, in director John Wells' "August: Osage County". Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts are absolutely riveting on screen, providing the audience a demonstration of both their range as well as their impeccable dramatic and comic timing. The words from Tracy Letts' script, based on her stage play, are brought to life by a brilliant cast in a film which closely examines the ideology of the American family and dares to challenge these norms in every imaginable way. Bottom line, if you ever thought your family had problems, this film will have you leaving the theater thankful as you will come to realize it could always be worse. The subject matter combined with the sharp and witty script creates a truly powerful experience in narrative story telling that reminded me of another outstanding film whose script was based on a play, "A Few Good Men", which was also anchored by a talented cast performing at the top of their game.

     The moment we meet Violet (Meryl Streep), it is instantly obvious she's quite a character. As she recovers from a bout with cancer, her husband, Bev (Sam Shepard) feels it's necessary to hire a live in caretaker to help clean and cook meals, as well as driving Violet to her doctor's appointments. Violet is stuck in her ways and has very clear and concise beliefs as to how those around her should conduct their lives. She's extremely critical of everyone in her family, especially her husband. As she says several times throughout the film, she believes nothing gets by her and she has no problem providing negative feedback to those she professes to love. Her oldest daughter, Barbara (Julia Roberts) is cut from the same cloth and as a result is in the midst of marital problems with her husband, Bill (Ewan McGregor), as the two struggle to raise their teenage daughter prior to an inevitable divorce.

     The film gets it's title noting the time and location of the proceedings. It's unbearably hot and miserable in Osage County, Oklahoma and the characters make no bones about it. All of these issues aside, a family emergency begins to develop when Bev suddenly goes missing. Upon finding out this news, Barbara and her family drive in from Denver to help Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), Violet's middle daughter, and Margo (Mattie Fae Aiken), Violet's sister, cope with the situation. When it is found Bev has committed suicide, the family is now forced to deal with an emotional funeral.

     With the passing of Bev, Violet's youngest daughter, Karen (Juliette Lewis) drives in from Florida with her hot shot fiancé, Steve (Dermot Mulroney) and they are later joined by Margo's son, Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch) to round out the closest family members in attendance. Letts' script provides plenty of insights into each character early on, exposing a number of significant flaws which all come to a head in one pivotal scene. Following the funeral, the group gathers for dinner at Violet's house where the majority of the film takes place. Dinner scenes in movies are often the setting for some of the most memorable conversations and usually some of the funniest as well. It turns out the Weston family has a lot of pent up anger and frustration with one another and Violet becomes the catalyst for a bitch session unlike any other I've seen in a film.

     This woman is crude and doesn't care who she offends in the process of tearing down each and every member of her family. Now the elder statesmen of the family, Margo's husband, Charlie (Chris Cooper) does his best to diffuse the situation, but he also knows who he's dealing with and she simply cannot be stopped. The verbal carnage that ensues would likely rip apart most family bonds, but as the story moves on, it becomes clear the first onslaught by Violet is merely the beginning. With the family under one roof for just a period of a few days, it becomes clear why all but one of Violet's daughters chose to move several states away. That seems to be what bothers Violet most since many of the squabbles relate to Violet's belief that true families always stay together. There are several arguments which involve the older characters bringing light to the values instilled on them when they were children and the contrast between how they were raised and how good Violet's daughters were raised. Violet sees her daughters as ungrateful for the sacrifices she made as a mother and constantly reminds them of the poor childhood she and Margo endured. I have to figure this is a common theme amongst various generations who interact with one another during various kinds of get togethers and the characters in this film struggle mightily in dealing with each other's opinions on the matter.

     The banter between Streep and Roberts reaches enormously dramatic heights several times, offering a true interpretation of their mother/daughter relationship while injecting a number of humorous moments that seem to lighten the mood when needed most. Rarely do we get the treat of seeing two actors in tune with each other at this high of a level. I used the example earlier of "A Few Good Men" because their chemistry very much reminded me of the performances by Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson, just a joy to behold. Like that film, "August: Osage County" ensures each and every cast member has their moments to shine, but also takes it a step further in that I felt as though I knew this family pretty well by the time the film ended. I've always been frustrated when a film introduces a character and forgets about the need to develop them, as if the filmmakers assume we already know them well enough based on what they chose to give us. Certainly, the tight quarters of an older house on the plains of Oklahoma as a setting allows these characters to convene and interact in nearly every scene, but even the subtle characters make an impact. Similar to "Nebraska" and "Philomena", "August: Osage County" portrays a very human story we can all relate to, relying solely on compelling characters, a taut script, and a cast in top form that successfully meld together into one of the best films of 2013.  GRADE: A