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Zimbio Review - 'August: Osage County' Isn't Hell, It's Oklahoma in Summer

(The Weinstein Company)Long Story Short: There's a falsity to this film that makes it feel very staged, but the script has true moments of greatness and it's fun seeing Streep and Roberts together for the first time.

August: Osage County
will remind you of: American Beauty, Six Feet Under (TV), Steel Magnolias, Barton Fink, The Family Stone, The Savages

Review: August: Osage County is a stage adaptation and it feels like it. Set in the middle of nowhere and featuring an all-star team of actors, it's too self-aware to be considered authentic and too angry to be camp. It lives somewhere between those extremes which isn't necessarily a bad thing. The movie ambles along, stopping occasionally in eruptions of truth, before settling into existential exhaustion. A family comes together and proceeds to remind themselves why they don't do it more often. It's pure American dysfunction.

The star-studded cast of August: Osage County give both great performances and poor ones. Sam Shepard appears as Beverly Weston, the husband and father whose untimely death will reunite his clan. He begins the film reading The Hollow Men by T.S. Eliot. "Life is very long." He tells the new housekeeper. But it's the poem's most famous lines that resonate. "This is the way the world ends/Not with a bang but a whimper." 

Tracy Letts, who adapted his own three hour play into a two hour version for the screen, has an ear for crafting explicit language (he also wrote Killer Joe). What he does best is create scenes that open wounds. His villain is the family matriarch, Violet Weston, played by Meryl Streep, who holds the title of "Mother" like a guillotine operator holds the blade. "Nobody slips anything by me." She tells her daughters on more than one occasion. Any attempt made to challenge Violet results in swift, damaging retribution. 

Her daughters are all very different. Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) has stayed close to home. Barbara (Julia Roberts) has kept her distance but is still living at home emotionally. And Karen (Juliette Lewis) has moved away and remains obliviously unattached. The fireworks are provided by Violet and Barbara, who resents her mother with a boiling hatred known only by family members. Streep and Roberts, together for the first time onscreen, lend the film a strange sense of fantasy. They're too perfect for these roles, so it's hard to lose yourself in their characters.

Violet has mouth cancer and is addicted to a litany of pharmaceuticals so her behavior runs the gamut from catatonic to Sam Kinison. She's buoyed by her sister, Mattie Fae Aiken (Margo Martindale), who's a lesser portrait of evil, but evil nonetheless. Chris Cooper plays Mattie Fae's husband, Charlie, and has the film's most endearing moment. "I don't understand this meanness." He tells his wife. Indeed, neither do we, as the past isn't explained, but we can gather a sense of sympathy for any outsider, like Charlie, forced into this dynamic.

August: Osage County does have glorious moments of clarity. Different people will take away different things from this film depending on their own family histories, but the story did ring true for me. Violet, in her unwavering self-righteousness, will never accept her children's cries for help because she had it so much worse. She's not being mean, she's "truth-telling," which is its own special kind of violence. People who disagree are "dummies" and the youngest generation, represented by Barbara's daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin), should never open their mouths. "If I ever called my mother a liar, she's knock my goddam head off!" Violet exclaims.

Violet represents the parent as tyrant, unable to see her own flaws but hyper-aware of everyone's around her. Whether it's a defense mechanism or simple ignorance, the truth is Violet hates herself most of all. Her children are extensions of herself so they share the blame. Streep is compelling in this role. She wears a dark-haired wig and Elizabeth Taylor sunglasses—armor, it seems, for the war she'll wage on her loved ones. Once the wig comes off, Streep shows another side. It's not exactly Darth Vader taking off the helmet, but it's in the ballpark.

The actors who struggle simply aren't given much to do. Benedict Cumberbatch is mis-cast as Little Charles, a bumpkin who's in love with his cousin, Ivy. He's too powerful an actor to thrive in such a middling role. Ewan McGregor is soundly wasted as Barbara's husband. She clearly wears the pants. And Dermot Mulroney and Lewis struggle with chemistry as a husband and wife to be.

The title August: Osage County refers to the time (summer) and place (Oklahoma) of this Middle American purgatory. Is it hell? It's easy to make that leap, but if so, whose hell is it? Violet's? Surrounded by family, she's wasting away nonetheless, burning every bridge along the way. Is it Barbara's, as she gives her mother one last futile shot at a relationship? The inclusion of Eliot's famous poem, which was influenced by Dante's Inferno, would seem to point to a metaphysical undercurrent. But it's the anger, the meanness, that pushes it over the top. 

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