Photo: Courtesy The Weinstein Company.
The joke that Meryl Streep not only vacuums up all the good roles for female actors of a certain age, but all the Best Actress awards as well, is cliché by now. It's also pretty darn close to true.
Well, folks, awards season is upon us, and so we have Streep's turn in August: Osage County as Violet Weston, the pill-popping, cancer-ridden, bile-spouting matriarch of an Oklahoma clan of broken, witty people played by two fistfuls of Hollywood's best performers. Here we go again.
With Julia Roberts, a pedigree as a beloved Broadway play, a Christmas release date, and tons of feelings in tow, August: Osage County is the Oscar vehicle its producers needed it to be. It's the sort of thing people who read Variety and Deadline with great interest care about. It also happens to be a film — and a wonderful, darkly charming one at that.
In the wake of a family tragedy, the three Weston sisters and their ragged parade of lovers, husbands, and children wash ashore at Violet's massive, beautiful, and decrepit farmhouse. It's a miserable, well-appointed ant farm and the perfect setting for director John Wells' sharp vignettes. Wells, famous for ER and other ensemble dramas, has always made individual interactions in large casts sparkle. As well, he makes the film's centerpiece, a long dinner scene, stunningly efficient and brutal. He has a weakness for sentimentality and melodrama, so you also get supercilious music cues and characters staring off toward the horizon. This movie is important, y'all.
Nonetheless, it's a fine framework for pleasing performances from Juliette Lewis, Chris Cooper, Julianne Nicholson, Margo Martindale, and, of course, Streep and Roberts. In any case, no matter how lightly directed, August: Osage County is about as high as melodrama can get. Suicide, drug addiction, cancer, angry teens, infidelity, casual racism, and deep, dark, near-unspeakable family secrets, it's all here. The line between drama and soap-opera treacle in August: Osage County is maintained only by the quality of the production, dialogue, and performances.
And, as for those performances, while most of the men are simply reflections of what the female characters need them to be, there isn't a weak link. August: Osage County could be seriously, seriously depressing stuff. We mean, the number one theme is disappointment (in your parents, you children, your mate, yourself) for God's sake. In capturing the truth that nothing can wound you so deeply as family, the whole movie should be very close to unbearable. It's the actors that keep us from turning away and keep us laughing.
Streep as Violet is, of course, Oscar-worthy. That was the whole point, right? She rages, she swoons, she slides down her chair like a deflated balloon. Everything that an actor could want in a part is here, and Streep gobbles it up spitting out everything we fear from our parents — sickness, disappointment, the works. It's a horror show.
The shining performance, though, isn't Streep's — it's Roberts'. She's flinty, funny, and the bitter, emotional core of the film. It's the kind of role Roberts couldn't have carried just a decade or so ago, but after 10 years of playing prickly pears, she's convincingly and movingly angry. In a film filled with gut punches, Roberts creates some of the hardest (in August's centerpiece scene particularly).
It has to be said — given that the film talks so much about women aging — that as she crosses into her late 40s, Robert has become a rarer, more expressive beauty. Though she's frankly too gorgeous here for such a ragged character, she uses her now-angular face, body, and burning eyes to create something both sympathetic and frightening. This may be her best dramatic role, ever.
It's ironic that Streep is — according to the Weinstein Company — the one who's up for Best Actress, while Roberts is slated for Best Supporting. The Pretty Woman's performance here proves that all the best roles don't go to Streep.
So, yes, if you and the clan are headed out to a holiday movie on the 26th and somehow can't score tickets to Inside Llewyn Davis, this frightening, vicious, often hilarious family disaster film is your best bet — particularly if being at home for the holidays has taken a turn for the sharp and argumentative. There's nothing that brings a family together better than seeing another one that has it worse, and, folks, the Westons are about as bad as it gets.
August: Osage County opens in wide release, December 25.
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