Film: August: Osage County

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Title: August: Osage County
By: Weinstein Company
Seen on: February 23

The trailer doesn’t do this film justice. It only gives you a sliver of a glimpse of how dysfunctional the Weston family really is. And boy, are they dysfunctional… They make you want to thank whatever deity you believe in (or not) for your own family. And it’s not just Violet (Meryl Streep’s character) either, just about everyone in this family is fucked up in one way or another.

Let me start at the beginning: the film opens with Beverly Weston hiring a domestic help to help him with his sick wife Violet. She’s got cancer of the mouth and is pretty much addicted to pills. And they don’t make her a very pleasant person. When Violet comes down from her bedroom to meet the help, it is immediately clear what type of person she is and you just know she’s gonna be dynamite. And she delivers big time. She is volatile, crude, rude, and miserable. “Truth telling,” she calls it. It really is just tearing down everyone around her.

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But you can’t hate her. And that is all due to Meryl Streep’s fantastic portrayal. She manages to balance Violet’s poison with her vulnerability of her illness and the effects of her drug addiction. Beverly’s death has triggered something in Violet that can’t be stopped, fuelled by the pills and her horrid past. And the longer the family is together, the more Violet unravels and lashes out around her. I don’t think many other actresses could have pulled it off as brilliantly delicate and well-balanced as Meryl Streep has. She ruins everyone’s lives (literally, everyone’s, not one person is spared), but you still can’t hate her for it. I was very, very impressed by Meryl Streep. Like she ever doesn’t impress!

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Shortly after Beverly hires Johnna, the help, he takes off and kills himself. This prompts his and Violet’s daughters to come home to Osage County, Oklahoma, to first try and find him and then to bury him. With them come Violet’s sister Mattie Fae, who is married to Charles. They have a son that the family calls “Little” Charles (a lovely role by Benedict Cumberbatch), which is meant every bit as denigrating as it sounds. Mattie Fae is a lot like Violet: volatile, provoking, inconsiderate, and absolutely horrible to her son. It is not until the last half hour of the film that we find out why, and it is heartbreaking. But more on that later.

MERYL STREEP and JULIA ROBERTS star in AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY

Julia Roberts plays the oldest daughter Barbara, who moved as far away as she could as soon as she could many years ago. Julianne Nicholson plays the middle daughter Ivy, who has stayed home to take care of their parents. Juliette L:ewis plays the youngest sister Karen, who also moved away to try and find love and wealth in New York, Miami, and wherever else she thought it was. Their relationship isn’t exactly what you would call sisterly. Ivy resents her sisters for leaving her to take care of their parents, Barb feels blamed for just about everything, and Karen thinks nobody really cares about her and what she has accomplished. The tension between them is fabulously played by all three actresses, although I thought Juliette Lewis’ Karen could have benefited from a bit more strength in her portrayal. Her emotional turn-around a little later in the film was a bit too abrupt and jarring, because up until then she didn’t show a lot of layers and depth. Nevertheless, it was a very believable relationship between the sisters, tense and simmering.

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A lot happens in the film: Beverly kills himself. Barb shows up with her husband Bill (Ewan McGregor), who is having an affair with a younger woman, and their daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin), who is a typical teenager and gets into trouble by smoking pot and having Karen’s boyfriend touch her. Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale) and Charlie (Chris Cooper) show up and it is immediately clear their marriage isn’t very stable either. Karen shows up with her boyfriend Steve (Dermot Mulroney) in an open-topped Porsche, blasting loud music. She wears way too short skirts and fails to see Steve is a douchebag with an interest in too young girls, namely Barb’s daughter Jean. Beverly’s funeral happens, with Little Charles arriving too late. When he arrives at the house, it is revealed Ivy and little Charles are secretly seeing each other, despite them being cousins. And then the infamous dinner we see in the trailers happens.

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The dinner is the best scene in the film. It is not easy putting that many actors at a table and not have their talents outshine each other. But it works. Every single character has a place in the scene, they all have a purpose, and it all culminates into this horrifyingly awkward and painful dinner that no one can sit through without cringing and wincing and getting angry for the people on screen. It really makes you thankful for all the family dinners you’ve had that didn’t end in a pile of rubbles that was once a family. It is a very impressive, strong, and heavy scene.

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But it’s not done yet after the dinner. Ivy reveals she is dating Little Charles, and that it is okay because she’s had a hysterectomy. Little Charles gets chewed out by Mattie Fae and Charles threatens to leave her if she doesn’t be nicer to their son. Mattie Fae then reveals to Barb Little Charles isn’t in fact Charles’ son, but Beverly’s. Yes, Violet’s late husband. And that Ivy and Little Charles are in fact siblings. Barb confronts Violet about her pill addiction by attacking her and then going on a pill raid. Steve gives Jean pot and tries to touch her inappropriately, Johnna sees this and hits Steve over the head with a shovel, Karen and Steve leave in a rush of emotions and denial, and Bill takes Jean away and subsequently tells Barb he won’t ever come back to her. It turns out Violet knew about Little Charles, Barb fails to prevent her from telling Ivy, and Ivy leaves in a flurry of emotions too.

And then it is just Barb and Violet left. Violet is still volatile and shows no remorse whatsoever, still taking it out on Barb. It’s a lovely scene between Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts. I am not very often touched by Julia Roberts, but this scene finally highlighted her talent. It was a powerful scene for her. When Barb can’t take it anymore, she leaves too, leaving Violet for good.

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I’ve read that the play doesn’t end like that, and that some audiences have commented on not knowing what happens with Violet or any of them other family members after this final scene, but it works for me. I don’t need to know. It was never about having endings, or neat bows around stories, this whole film is about the journey and the development of people and family and how family influences who you are, or not. I liked the open ending, it fitted the story.

What I most liked about the film was the strong acting performances. Almost everyone in it was fantastic. I felt attached to all the characters, I was drawn into to the story by them and I cared about them. And that doesn’t happen very often with such a big ensemble cast. Meryl Streep carries the film, but the rest of the cast carry her. The story never gets too complicated, it never gets too dramatic, and it never gets boring. Which is a good combination and makes for a film that is over way too soon.

Rating: 8/10

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