Film review: August: Osage County (2013)

This is a good film despite the fact that its central premise is a well-worn one, that of a dysfunctional family that has dispersed as the children became adults but then reconvene in the family home in an isolated part of Oklahoma due to a tragedy. In the course of a day or two, long-simmering feuds and rivalries and resentments resurface and long-suppressed secrets are revealed. Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is the prototype of such dramas.

As dysfunctional families go, this one is a doozy. Meryl Streep plays matriarch Violet Weston, a cancer ridden, bitter woman addicted to pain killing drugs, with an alcoholic, bookish poet of a husband and three middle-aged daughters. She is someone whom we have all encountered, a person who prides herself on being a ‘truth teller’ but who seems to be happiest when her truths inflict harm on whoever happens to be around to be her target.

Julia Roberts is her eldest daughter the strong-willed Barbara, whose own marriage is disintegrating and whose estrangement from her own teenage daughter mirrors her difficult relationship with her mother. Streep’s second daughter Karen is shallow and vapid, going from one messy relationship to another while seeking her dream romance, and arrives home with her new fiancée, a thrice-married, pot-smoking, sports car driving poseur. The youngest daughter Ivy is the one who stayed back in the area and had to deal with her parents’ problems on a day-to-day basis, and resents the fact that her siblings left her and that life and romance has passed her by. She feels little connection to her family and has her own secrets to grapple with.

The film uses the tension between Streep and Roberts as its central focus and both deliver powerful performances. Both of them are de-glamorized and appear as normal people. I felt that some scenes with Streep ran a little too long, as if meant to give her a chance to show her acting chops. I have never been a fan of Roberts, actively avoiding her films in fact, but this is an excellent performance from her.

The always-watchable Chris Cooper plays Streep’s sister’s husband, the only person who seems to be well-grounded and who makes heroic efforts to bring peace to the warring family by trying to see the good side of people and change the topic when tempers flare, and at the same time protecting his son from his wife’s seemingly inexplicable persistent belittling. Benedict Cumberbatch (yes, Sherlock himself) plays their son and is the weakest character in the film in a part that is both under-written and under-developed.

Like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof this film is based on an award-winning play. Plays depend on story and dialogue for their success and these are the core elements that make for good films too, something that filmmakers sometimes forget when their source material is not a play and they fall prey to thinking that special effects and action and visual elements can compensate for weaknesses in the basics. The danger with plays is that on the stage, emotions and speech have to be sometimes exaggerated and this has to be toned down when transferred to film.

For some reason, I had the impression before seeing the film that this was a comedy. It is definitely not, though it has some funny bits. The scene where Cooper is suddenly asked to deliver the grace at the funeral dinner is quite hilarious as he, clearly not someone who says grace or even prays, desperately struggles with his obligation, stringing together phrases from prayers he remembers from the past along with awkward silences as he tries to figure out how to bridge from one cliché to the next.

Here’s the trailer.

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