It’s hot in Osage County in the summertime — likely because of all the star wattage you’ll find there.
Let’s take a tour. Here we have the Oscar Queen, Meryl Streep, peerless amongst all actresses who ever lived. And over here is Julia Roberts, one of the biggest and brightest movie stars of the past few decades, also an Oscar winner.
Behind them, we have several other Academy Award winners and nominees — including even the cast’s youngest member, Abigail Breslin — and a few others who haven’t yet been recognized by the Academy but are nonetheless well esteemed. Behind the scenes, you’ll find both George Clooney and the Weinsteins as producers, who between them have won just about all of the available Oscars of the past few years. And then, over here is Tracy Letts, who won a Tony for this play.
No wonder it’s hot in Osage County. Not too shabby, for a random patch of nothing in Oklahoma.
The film adaptation of August: Osage County may as well have been dubbed Oscar: Osage County, or August: Oscar County. Or why not Oscar: Oscar Oscar? That’s the kind of pedigree behind this thing — and yet somehow, the actual awards season buzz has never risen above a whisper. It’s all but inevitable that Meryl Streep will get her token nomination — because when Meryl Streep is in a movie, Meryl Streep gets a nomination. It’s not a particularly competitive year for Best Actress. Julia Roberts could also find herself in the running as either Best Actress or Best Supporting Actress. (It’s a lead role, but sometimes the Academy likes to fudge these things.)
With up to ten nominees in the category, it’s certainly conceivable that August: Osage County will also find itself in the running for Best Picture, but it stands no chance of winning. That’s somewhat surprising, given how many of the “right elements” August: Osage County has going for it. Unfortunately for the golden gang involved, 2013 was a strong year for strong movies, most of which are actually getting their awards season due. This year, there’s less room for filler and fluff. Scenery-chewing and over-the-top performances aren’t distracting the voting masses like they usually do. This just isn’t Osage County‘s year.
In the beginning, August: Osage County purports to be about a hard-drinking man and his pill-popping wife. Before the end, we’ll also have touched on pedophilia, incest, and multiple counts of infidelity. (There’s also a lot of substance abuse, concentrated mainly on marijuana and prescription drugs.) “Everybody hurts” might be the jumping-off point to talk about the themes of this movie, but August: Osage County doesn’t stop there. In this movie, everybody hurts, then self-medicates with something they shouldn’t, which in turn hurts someone else. Everybody hurts everybody might be a more accurate reading.
No, there’s not a truly admirable person amongst the whole Weston clan. Our protagonist is Barb (Julia Roberts), who has been wronged by her husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) and ceased to be a real parent to her teenage daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin). She’s likable enough, but eventually displays a rather harsh acidic tongue, particularly when dealing with her indelicate mother Violet (Meryl Streep). Violet has cancer of the mouth, which seems fitting since it’s her mouth that’s always getting her in trouble — she’s “truth telling,” as she puts it, but really she’s being a bitch and everyone knows it. Violet is poisonous — she’s infected all of her daughters, yet we hear that her own mother pretty much ruined her. August: Osage County is about the ripple effect in unhappy families; maybe every generation gets a little better, but not by much. At fourteen, even young Jean seems fairly doomed.
The family reconvenes when patriarch Beverly (Sam Shepard) goes missing; this also includes two other sisters — floozy Karen (Juliette Lewis) and responsible Ivy (Julianne Nichols), plus Violet’s brash sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale), her stoner husband Charles (Chris Cooper), and their inept son Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch). Karen has also brought her flashy flavor-of-the-week fiance Steve (Dermot Mulroney). They’ve all got issues. The only potentially well-adjusted individual we meet is Johnna (Misty Upham), the “Indian” Beverly hires to cook and clean for household shortly before he disappears. We never learn much about her, but we can only assume she’s better off than this crazy bunch. (Sidenote: Violet and Beverly’s daughters are cast with a Julia, a Julianne, and a Juliette. It’s like it was meant to be!)
The play clocks in at over three hours, and while this movie seems perfectly long enough at two hours and ten minutes, it probably works better to have all that family drama stretched out a bit. In August: Osage County, we get a hell of a lot of melodrama in just two hours’ time, and eventually it becomes wearying and implausible. Do we need revelations about incest and pedophilia in back-to-back scenes? Isn’t it a bit much?
Perhaps it’s senseless to criticize the movie for the sins of the play, which is certainly very entertaining, and I imagine lends itself to the theatrical experience adeptly. (I’ve read it but never seen it performed.) I’m not sure the same can be said of the cinematic experience, though — it comes across more like an overcooked, overstuffed, overlong TV pilot, which makes sense considering it was directed by John Wells. Wells has plenty of experience wrangling large, talented casts in dramatic roles; he has less experience directing movies.There’s nothing particularly wrong with the way August: Osage County is directed, but somehow, the combination of a play and a director trained in television just doesn’t make for much of a film, even with all those great big movie stars on display. August: Osage County is less stagey than some play-to-film adaptations, but this particular brand of melodrama works better on Broadway. Every scene is dialed up to 10, particularly when Meryl Streep is on screen. It’s a BIG performance, perhaps too big for a movie theater — which is not to say it’s bad, exactly, but you’ll never forget that she’s acting. Streep chews the scenery and then picks it out of her teeth with the lighting equipment. It’s fun to watch, but also exhausting.
Even with all these dramatic twists and turns, August: Osage County doesn’t feel like a complete story, at least in cinematic terms; it’s not really about anything. I mean, it’s about family and addiction and pain, but we just wallow in these people’s misery for a couple hours without much of an ending. There’s no journey and little focus — we’re asked to sympathize with different characters at different points, but not one of them provides a real anchor. I suppose that’s supposed to be Barb — the film ends with her, on a forced faux-hopeful note that wasn’t in the play, a scene that is clearly reaching for something the play never wanted to say in the first place. Is Barb doomed to repeat the sins of her mother? That’s one idea in August: Osage County, but it’s not the main point. The film shifts the focus away from Violet a bit, making her a colorful pill-popping villain rather than the focal point. In the end, August: Osage County tries to be everybody’s story and ends up being nobody’s story. Everybody hurts everybody, and then they’re gone.
There I go critiquing the play again — except I’m not critiquing the play, I’m critiquing the play as a movie. The script is stuffed with pearls of brilliant dialogue, some of it thoughtful, some of it acerbic. (A personal favorite: Julia Roberts screaming, “Eat the fish, bitch!” at Meryl Streep. It doesn’t seem totally in character, but it’s a hoot nonetheless.) But the story likely needed to be toned down a few notches to work on the big screen.
For all its hustle and bustle and bluster, August: Osage County doesn’t quite pack the emotional wallop that so many of the year’s best movies did. All in all, it amounts to a lot of hot air and a little movie.