Of all the Oscar-nominated films this season, perhaps there’s no other one in the cavalcade that is being paraded with pomposity and megaphoned in sheer volume, desperately shrieking OSCARS™ all over its rooftops than August: Osage County. That somewhere halfway through Meryl Streep’s magnificently vitriolic put-downs, you’d somehow expect the frame to freeze where Harvey Weinstein’s typographically precise For Your Consideration, Academy Award-winning Best Actress gets slapped on screen – and amid Julia Roberts’s show-stopping indignity “Eat you fucking fish, bitch!”, we’ll be treated to a cutaway shot of an audience applause, strategically a nanosecond away from a standing ovation. Such is the inescapable distraction here that whenever the film boils up to emotionally heightened levels, we’re constantly reminded that this is not only about the traumatic dynamics of a disintegrating family clan we’re watching but, for the love of Streep’s overloaded mantlepiece, also about damn good acting.
Stripped back to its bare essence, August: Osage County cannot escape the obvious truth that most of its set-pieces are nothing more than filmed theatre, albeit tinkered with some very generic reverse-shot editing and film language akin to television dramas. Writer Tracy Letts, who adapted his own Pulitzer-prize winning stage play, is hardly the one to blame – his screenplay is a barrel-load of verbal gunpowder which explodes over the course of one pivotal dinner scene – but rather the unremarkable, lacklustre direction of John Wells, whose TV background is perhaps not doing this material any good. The aforementioned dinner scene, for instance, is an explosive, dramaturgic centerpiece – beginning with a prayer and ending with Roberts’s contrary eldest daughter Barbara wrestling Streep’s vile matriarch Violet on the floor – is let-down by Wells’ cross-cutting style, which disrupts the ebb and rhythm of the unfolding drama, despite being ferociously performed. Had it been filmed in long takes, a sense of real-time would have certainly contributed more urgency and verve.
But that’s not the case, and forget about cunning direction because that doesn’t exist here. What exist instead is two powerhouse performances from two actresses in their prime, both literally reducing everyone in the background as mere spectators. It’s becoming a hoary old cliché to laud Streep another gong, adding to her award collection enough to fill a Maersk container, but her turn as the cancer-stricken yet never less combative Violet Weston is a screaming memorandum that we’re seeing America’s greatest living actress working in full gear. She’s poignant and pathetic in her self-deprecating, doped-up, receding form, but as soon as she puts on that wig, there emerges a vicious old crone with the actress veritably chewing every scene with sheer lack of modulation, reminiscent to what Bette Davis did in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? but with added extra dose of nihilism. Roberts, on the other hand, fares better and gives a more convincing performance, externalising years’ worth of anguish and pain without succumbing to histrionics a la Streep. It’s not easy to overshadow Streep in a film, but Roberts does it with such heartrending conviction.
Then again for every superb performance, there are other minor characters who seem to float in the backdrop and milks it as soon as they get their time to ‘shine’. Julianne Nicholson, Juliette Lewis, Margo Martindale and Chris Cooper all give fine supporting work, but Ewan McGregor, Delmot Mulroney and Abigail Breslin are underutilised. Even worse, a poorly performing Benedict Cumberbatch is treated as nothing more than footnote to this shambolic family reunion that you’ll nearly forget he’s there (oh yeah, he’s the guy who dropped the casserole! LOLs). With the amount of talent involved, it’s bordering perversion to think that the film could certainly do no wrong. But when all the shouting stops, the quieter moments flail for meaning, and when the dark skeletons are revealed from closet – infidelity, incest, emotional abuse – all feel like contrivances in an already burdensome proceedings. Sure, the Weston house isn’t a place you’d fancy strolling into (especially dinnertime), but the fractured family portrayed here is all too knowingly layouted and skirmished. The failures of communication and understanding in families are themes in which August: Osage County sets its compass to but most unfortunately drowned by such self-importance and – oh look, thespians acting!
DIRECTOR: John Wells | CAST: Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Margo Martindale, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Juliette Lewis | SCREENPLAY: Tracy Letts | DISTRIBUTOR: Entertainment Films | RUNNING-TIME: 121 mins | GENRE: Drama | COUNTRY: USA