Dinner theatre – August: Osage County review

August Osage County

By Simon Miraudo
December 17, 2013

Tracy Letts is doing the Lord’s work. Or is it the Devil’s? (Which one is responsible for all the fun stuff again?) He adapts his Pulitzer Prize winning play, August: Osage County, for the big screen, just in time for the holidays, administering the perfect antidote for all the chipper fare that’s choked out during the Christmas season. Concerning a mad matriarch and her extended, upended family, it builds to 2013’s best centrepiece: a seemingly endless dinner, during which secrets are spilled, swears are sworn, and relationships are irrevocably fractured. That the meal is punctuated with the most cutting barbs we’ve heard since, well, the last adaptation of a Tracy Letts production makes the extremely uncomfortable experience also a particularly funny one. That’s the best way to describe August: Osage County (which has been mounted, impressively, by director John Wells): thoroughly unpleasant and incorrigibly entertaining. It’s the best bad time I’ve had all year.

Meryl Streep plays that hate-spewing matriarch, Violet Weston, suffering from the not-so-subtle ailment of mouth cancer. The movie opens with her softly spoken husband, Beverly (Sam Shepard), orienting new maid, Johnna (Misty Upham), before Violet, loaded on pills, emerges from her quarters and advises him to “f**king f**k a sow’s a*s.” (Have a notepad handy while watching. You’re gonna want to jot these insults down and work them into your repertoire.) When Beverly – unsurprisingly – bails, Violet is gifted with an opportunity to guilt her three daughters into returning to their childhood home in Oklahoma. They arrive under false pretences, thinking their mission is to locate Beverly and keep drug addict Violet from spiralling out of control. Rather, Violet is treating this reunion like revenge, poking and prodding her offspring until each one jumps into their car and screeches away as if they were leaving the scene of a crime. If only Wells had included a final shot of the Weston’s driveway, marked by distressed gravel and skid-marks. Then again, this thing – if I had to pick at its singular fraying thread – already has three too many ‘final shots’ as it is.

August Osage County

Violet is a big part, yet Streep doesn’t overplay it. She lords over proceedings, but she never swallows them whole. Her scene-partners include Julia Roberts, Julianne Nicholson, and Juliette Lewis as daughters Barbara, Ivy, and Karen, respectively. All three are similarly superlative (particularly Nicholson). Barbara – the favourite child – rolls back into town with her estranged husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) and disaffected teen daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin). Meanwhile, flibbertigibbet Karen – not quite the apple of her parents’ eyes – brings along her insufferable fiancée Steve (Dermot Mulroney). Ivy needs to make no long trek home, having stayed near ma and pa all this time. She believes her time served entitles her to complete absolution in regards to a taboo affair she’s been carrying on. It’s telling that the most reasonable and sympathetic person amongst this bunch is the one enjoying the ickiest sexual entanglement.

As if this cast wasn’t quite stacked enough, we have Margo Martindale, Chris Cooper, and Benedict Cumberbatch (shockingly, convincing as an Okie despite being history’s most British person) as fringe relatives harbouring their own nasty little secrets. Truly, by film’s end, none are spared their ritual shaming. And yet, August is slightly less misanthropic than Letts’ Killer Joe (which was previously adapted by William Friedkin in fine fashion). It should be said, however, that Killer Joe concludes with the movie’s most detestable character molesting the movie’s second most detestable character with a chicken drumstick, so, you know, pretty much anything would have seemed like It’s a Wonderful Life in comparison.

August Osage County

Wells is a TV veteran best known for creating the frenetic E.R., as well as producing the idealistic Aaron Sorkin reverie The West Wing. His CV to date would not have him atop any sane person’s list for appropriate directors of an August: Osage County adaptation. He surprises here, taking us beyond the constraints of the Weston home (where the play lived solely) and making this tale come alive in what feels truly like the South. Letts condenses his three-hour Tony winner by making some smart alterations, and Wells assists by staging the ensemble set pieces – and particularly those sometimes-unconvincing moments in which characters eavesdrop on revealing exchanges – in a manner that feels real as well as properly cinematic. The best compliment I can grant him is that he makes August feel like a movie. As for Letts, well, he writes like no one else, but that’s hardly news. His ability to find the perfect turn of phrase or colloquial curio to drop at the exact right moment is unrivalled.

Just because August: Osage County never breaks out into depraved, murderous, chicken-grubbing grotesqueness (a’la Killer Joe) doesn’t mean it’s not a striking depiction of America’s underside. This reprehensible conclave does not achieve redemption, but are practically punished for reuniting over this fateful, boiling hot month. They’re poisonous people, and through them Letts communicates his bleak belief: that perhaps we’re not meant to conduct our lives in the presence of others. The impossibility of long-term relationships – be it with relatives or lovers or one’s self – seems undeniable, at least among this bunch. I don’t personally subscribe to that idea in the way I conduct my life, but that doesn’t mean I find August: Osage County to be morally reprehensible, or obnoxious, or even unnecessary (the three main criticisms I’ve already heard from fellow viewers). This is a weirdly beautiful portrait of sad, hateful people whose lives have been tainted by regret, passed along from generation to generation. Though Letts tortures them, one senses a hint of affection from this God towards his lowly creations, and that’s just enough sympathy to keep the film from barrelling full speed into wrist-slashing theatre. I’ll be thinking of the Westons this Christmas, grateful to have met them, but grateful to not be one of them all the same.

4.5/5

Check out Simon Miraudo’s archive of reviews.

August: Osage County arrives in Australian cinemas January 1, 2014.

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