Release Date: January 10th, 2014 (US); January 24th, 2014 (UK)
Starring: Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts
Family reunions are often tarred with the ‘awkward’ label. And they can be, particularly if the participators share a common animosity. Or at the very least are in any way unfamiliar with each other. Both former and latter are absolutely the case here, only the stench of awkwardness is far from enough. To this family awkwardness encompasses simply the petulant appetiser before an enormous main course; a main course that presents a Sunday roast of hysterics, abrasion and arguments. The Weston family collectively exist in a pit of dysfunction. Sadly though, there’s far too much of it going on. Too much acting, too much shouting, too much loudness. In fact this film is so incredibly over the top it even reduced Sherlock to a blubbering idiot.
Welcome to Osage County. Presumably it’s August.
Upon learning about the apparent suicide of her father, Barbara (Julia Roberts) travels to her parents’ residence for the funeral and accompanying strenuous family congregation. Mother Violet (Meryl Streep) has mouth cancer, an affliction that never halts her ability to rattle out words nor does it subdue the uncontrollable pill-popping antics she vicariously partakes in. As she denounces her Native American maid’s right to refer to her own heritage, it becomes apparent that Violent isn’t a very likeable person. Perhaps she has every right to detest the world given her stricken circumstances, and if so who can hold such insignificant spiting against her? It could even be the drugs taking control and shoving each negative cell in her body to the forefront. But then her sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale) doesn’t exactly strike a chord of positivity either, relentlessly berating her own son for flaws overwhelmingly less vindictive than her own. And Violet’s aforementioned daughter Barbara, although at times a great deal more pleasant than mother and aunt, constantly finds herself battling against a future envisioning the same resentful tone as her elders. Only she’s already halfway there.
Therein lies one of two main problems that hampers this drama: it becomes increasingly difficult to pinpoint a character that you can actually relate to, one that you don’t feel guilty empathising with. As the saga plunges deeper and deeper into an abyss of loud shrieks and scalding off-the-cuff remarks, more and more family members are picked off by hate. It’s like a horror film, only instead of a mass-murdering antagonist the villain is a murky cloud of hostility, and instead of people perishing at the swing of a gleaming axe they choke on said whirling cloud and in turn lose any redeemability. Meryl Streep goes all out as the patriarch and is very good at being very bad, but her frenzies cast a shadow over other more genuine lower-key offerings from the likes of Julianne Nicholson and Chris Cooper, as Ivy and Charles respectively (ironically, the only sort of appealing characters on show). Yet even aside from all the noise and palaver, none of the people on screen are extensively interesting. You’d do well to connect with someone who is brash and a tad evil. At best it’s fun for a while, but by the time Streep has smoked her seventh cigarette and Roberts has blown her fourth gasket it all becomes a bit boring.
The screenplay is adapted from Tracy Letts’ critically lauded Pulitzer Prize–winning play of the same name and this provides the nucleus for significant problem number two. Everything feels quite artificial, almost agonisingly forced (tick off the proverbial stage props as you go: dinner table for ultimate congregation scene, porch for nighttime reminiscence scene). Few laughs are on offer, partly because the script can be whimsical but mainly due to the physical nature of delivery required for success. You can clearly see why the hair-raising approach works on stage, where the interaction with audiences who are part of a communally emotive atmosphere surely aids matters too. On screen though the execution is wooden meaning conversational exchanges — of which there are many — wear quickly. Having run out of relevant anecdotes, Streep and co streamline into discussing dying birds and more topics which feebly bear contrived relevance to their situation.
There’s no substance to the dialogue. Petty attempts at stirring the thought-provoking pot (or perhaps cauldron in Violet’s case) backfire as words fall on deaf ears: “Die after me, I don’t care what you do… just survive” might hold some sort of emotional resonance in a John Hughes film, but here it just sounds like terrible advice from a mother to her teenage daughter. Speaking of questionable behaviour, why do some members of the family grasp so tightly to the courtesy of grace at the dinner table, when they’ve just conducted a post-funeral fashion extravaganza? The film often appears to be trying to assure its own direction and often fails. One moment it’s a black comedy, the next a family drama, shortly thereafter a sentimental life-lesson. At one point I was certain the film blaring in view was some sort of Anchorman/Thor hybrid. Turns out Ewan McGregor just has a dodgy accent (“You’re a pain in the ass!”).
It does wave a few white flag-esque redeemable qualities in fairness. A charming soundtrack interweaves amongst the chaos, one which deviates from pleasant to sombre depending on which mode the narrative has shifted to. The extended family dinner is probably the best sequence on display, and is a very good one at that. Only here do each of the characters get to evolve their varying dynamics with other family members. It is the one time where you are absolutely certain proceedings are going to erupt at any given moment, yet the film deviously keeps you guessing and engaged for an extended period of time. The performances on the whole are excellent, if a smidgen awards-gesturing at times. Heck it even conveys the know-how to be funny on the one or two occasions laughs permeate the volatility (reasoning behind Abigail Breslin’s desire to get home is particularly apt).
August: Osage County is just about as messy as the family it thrusts on screen. Half of the characters are undesirable, whilst the other half’s presence merely equates to making up the numbers. There’s a lot of acting going on — bouts of which are very good — but sadly performances aren’t the be all and end all when it comes to engaging an audience.
Tomatoes at the ready.