August: Osage County--Overactors of Hollywood Unite!

 August: Osage County (2013)
Directed by John Wells
Weinstein Group, 121 minutes, R (language)

Wrestling for the coveted "Greatest Overacting Award."
What we’ve learned from the moves lately is that living in flat places like Montana, Nebraska, and Oklahoma can make you nuts. Apparently Oklahoma also produces horrendous acting, if August: Osage County is any indication. Here’s a sentence I never thought I’d write: Julia Roberts out-acts Meryl Streep. Here’s another: That’s because Streep’s latest performance is her career worst. She’s not alone, though. A “412” is actors’ slang for overacting and if there were 412 Oscars, the cast of Osage County would clean out the trophy case.

The film is ostensibly a twist on the adage: “The sins of the father are visited upon the son.” This time it’s the sins of the mother. Violet Weston (Streep) is a pill-popping bitter woman suffering from mouth cancer, and from benign neglect from her brilliant world-weary poet-husband Beverly (Sam Shepard in a cameo) . He’s had it with her Wicked Witch of the West act and has hired Johanna Monevata, a local Cheyenne woman (Misty Upham), to be a housekeeper and wedge between him and Violet. When Bev dies (accident or suicide?), the extended Weston family descends upon the homestead to bury Bev and pick up the pieces.

Hank Williams once sang, “A house without love is not a home,” and this is certainly true of the Westons. There’s not an ounce of kindness between Violet and her three daughters: Barbara (Roberts), Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), and Karen (Juliette Lewis). Violet is equal parts abusive and manipulative toward her younger sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale) and her huband, Charlie (Chris Cooper). She is sharp-minded, sharp-tongued, and occasionally funny, but Violet is as Machiavellian and mean-spirited as her own mother had been. Of course, she is powerfully resented by her daughters, all of whom are convinced they are nothing like her when, in truth, they’re chips off the old blockhead.

Barbara is a control freak in the midst of a disintegrating marriage to Bill Fordham (Ewan McGregor), and estranged from her 14-year-old daughter, Jean (Abigail Breslin). Ivy is the stay-behind daughter who is dutiful on the outside, but is so filled with resentment and fury that she’s about to explode; Karen is a trashy floozie dating the older Porsche-drving huckster Steve (Dermot Mulroney), who is literally and metaphorically taking her for a ride. Also in the mix is “Little” Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch), Mattie Fae’s son, whom she abuses and demeans at every opportunity.

Tracy Letts wrote the screenplay, which was based on her Broadway play. There’s  plenty here for a skilled director to shape but, alas, Wells isn’t that director. He’s best known for his work on television and he simply isn’t up to the task of laying down the law to all the star power and egos involved in this film. Streep plays Violet like Michael Bolton sings–she starts at 110 decibels and stays there. Her performance isn’t dramatic, it’s histrionic. Roberts is far superior because at least her anger smoulders before it ignites, but playing off of Streep’s overwrought tantrums, even cool Julia bursts into lighter-fluid-fanned flames. The less said about Juliette Lewis, the better; her performance is inept and embarrassing. Benedict Cumberbatch doesn’t have much to do, but he does it badly in a performance that runs the gamut from moping to really moping. Even the usually delightful Abigail Breslin slips; she plays a 14-year-old living dangerously as if she’s reduxing an old Christina Ricci role.

There are a few highlights. Julianne Nicholson is quite good because she plays her cards close to the vest instead of waving them in front of our faces. McGregor also does a nice job of repeatedly retightening the lid on the lamp, lest the genie (destructive outbursts) escape. Misty Upham is quielty present but forceful whilst being a leaf upon a raging stream, though we do wonder why she doesn’t leave all these Pugnacious Pale Faces to drown in their own bile. Best of all is Chris Cooper, a mostly silent man who’d be content just to be a good person, except for all the bullshit he’s forced to shovel and dodge. His perfomance has something most of the others lack; I believe they call it sublety.

This film is up for quite a few Oscars, but don’t be fooled–it’s what you’d get if you took the humor out of Monty Python’s “Four Yorkshiremen” sketch and mashed it with a high school production of A Long Day’s Journey Into Night and shocking revelations á la Chinatown. It’s my least favorite type of movie: 412s masquerading as weighty high art. Rob Weir


Anonymous said...

Half of Montana isn't flat. Half of this film is also not subtle.

Anonymous said...

Fair enough. Call it 50%. That's still a long way from the honor roll.

Anonymous said...

'Honour' roll? Who cares about that? Titanic got an Oscar and Taxi Driver didn't. You know what you can do with honours.