Tuesday, January 7, 2014

OSCAR WATCH: August: Osage County

Another acclaimed play received the Hollywood treatment last year in the form of "August: Osage County". Adapted by the playwright himself (Tracy Letts), this is a darkly humourous account of a dysfunctional family in the Plains of Oklahoma. Directed by John Wells, he assembles an all-star cast of actors and lets them rip. What results is a prickly chamber piece as the family returns to their collective home in the wake of a tragedy.

At the forefront of the action is Meryl Streep as Violet, the matriach of the Weston clan. After her husband dies (the aforementioned tragedy), she calls on her estranged family for some much needed comfort and joy. Well, that's what you'd expect but did I mention that they are dysfunctional? You see, Violet is going through a hard time outside of the tragic loss. She's suffering with mouth cancer and has resorted to an addiction to prescription pills to cope. As you can expect then, she's a bit unstable. Hence, with the family all gathered around the dinner table and plagued with anger/depression she proceeds to aggressively air everyone's dirty laundry.

Now, if you know Meryl Streep you know she doesn't do anything half-heartedly. So believe me when I say that she literally attacks the role with everything she's got. She SHOUTS, she GLARES, she LAUGHS, she CRIES. Basically what I'm saying is, it's the Meryl Streep show. That being said, I don't think she's bad in the movie like others have claimed. Yes, she unfairly grabs the attention from the other fantastic performer but one thing's for sure, her comic timing is pitch-perfect.

Streep's importance to the plot is critical, but there's also a terrific ensemble that supports her. The casting is impeccable with nary a weak link in the bunch. They truly felt like a real family, due to both physical resemblances and believable familial synergy. In particular, Margot Martindale and Meryl Streep have instant chemistry as sisters. Also notable is Julia Roberts, who is essentially the co-lead as Violet's daughter's Barbara. She's like a sponge in the role, absorbing everyone's energy and then feeding it right back to them. Really, all of the supporting players are uniformly outstanding, including Chris Cooper, Ewan McGregor, Sam Shepard, Dermot Mulroney, Julianne Nicholson, Juliette Lewis, Abigail Breslin, Benedict Cumberbatch and Misty Upham.

Apart from the superb acting, this is also a showcase for Tracy Letts' screenplay. His script is sharp and potent, gifting the actors some great material to work it. Together with Wells' simple but effective direction, they manage the tricky balance between comedy and drama very well. Unfortunately, I can't honestly say that it's a fully successful adaptation. It's a film of many great scenes but the narrative throughline is lacking. In the end, it doesn't quite come together as a fully satisfying whole. Furthermore, the mean-spirited tone is sometimes a little too acrid to bear. As a result, it's the kind of film you'd quickly want to forget.

For all its flaws, there's still a lot to admire in "August: Osage County". The brilliance of the source material is clearly evident, as it tells a powerful story about life's many challenges. A line by Barbara Weston in the film sums it up perfectly - "Thank God we can't tell the future. We'd never get out of bed." It's a cynical, sobering thought but it really hits home. Your own home may not be as troubled as this one but everyone can empathize with the sentiment. Life will inevitably bring its ups and downs, so you need to relish the good days.

Considering the awards pedigree of the stage play, the Oscar buzz has been unexpectedly quiet on this film. Apart from likely nominations for Best Actress (Meryl Streep), Best Supporting Actress (Julia Roberts) and Best Adapted Screenplay, there doesn't seem to be much heat elsewhere. The film is sure to have a lot of support in the acting branch though, so a surprise showing in Best Picture is still possible.

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