Monday, November 11, 2013

AFI Fest 2013: "August: Osage County"

Director: John Wells
Runtime: 130 minutes

It may seem odd, but the first film I thought of after seeing August: Osage County was Steven Spielberg's Lincoln. They have virtually no similarities when it comes to tone or subject matter, but they're noteworthy in how they downplay more noticeable "directing." Film is said to be the director's medium (auteur theory and all that jazz), but films like August and Lincoln are more content to reign in the cinematic techniques and simply let the acting and writing grab the spotlight. Both films are that much better because of this decision, even though August lacks Lincoln's distinguished sense of subtle finesse.

Adapted by Tracy Letts from his own Pulitzer-winning play, the film takes the Hollywood route and shears off roughly an hour's worth of material (much like Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd). While this decision does create the occasional pacing issue, such a considerable loss of material isn't enough to wreck the film. As 'directed' by John Wells, Letts' story is still an bitterly funny tale of a family get-together in the wake of tragedy. 

At the center of the film is Violet Weston (Meryl Streep), the cancer-ridden family matriarch. To say that Violet has complicated relationships with her daughters is an understatement. The reasons are best left unsaid (the story has a few surprising twists), but suffice it to say that this isn't just another big and loud family. The Westons are a particularly dysfunctional lot, capable of bickering and manipulating each other and then suddenly sharing in blackly comedic jokes about suicide. 

Like most family get togethers, real or cinematic, the early sections are where things struggle to take off. Letts' considerable cuts from his play are commendable, yet he leaves in some establishing scenes that are but empty stage business that would allow someone to change their costume. Wells doesn't try anything 'cinematic' or abstract, but some scenes - like Margo Martindale and Chris Cooper wandering through a dim, humid room - are as painfully stage-y as they come. 

The initial focus on Streep's Violet is also something of a divisive choice. While there are plenty of effective big and broad moments, Streep's capital-A acting sometimes clashes with the choices of her co-stars. Some of this is likely intentional - Violet comes off as a coarse, upper middle class Norma Desmond - but the performance is in need of some reigning in. When Streep does hit her mark, however, she's near the top of the ensemble in her ability to bring acid-soaked wit to Letts' tangy dialogue. 

Yet as Streep chews the scenery with reckless abandon, two of her co-stars (one famous, the other not so) steal the movie out from under her. As Violet's youngest daughter Ivy, Julianne Nicholson is superb in one of the film's quieter, introspective roles. This is the sort of supporting turn that immediately makes you wonder why Nicholson hasn't risen to greater prominence by now. She's effortlessly emotive, capturing Ivy's struggle with being the subservient youngest child without ever feeling pathetic. 

On the flip side is Julia Roberts as oldest daughter Barbara. Stripped of virtually any movie star ticks or persona, Roberts tears into the role, albeit in a more naturalistic manner than Streep. Watching Barbara's simmering contempt grow into a wrathful boil is among the narrative's most satisfying emotional developments. By the time the dramatic centerpiece - an early dinner featuring the whole Weston clan - comes to its knock-out ending, Roberts seals her status as best in show, just as Barbara finally claims her dominance in the household. 

For all of the antagonism on screen, Letts' script never forgets to make these characters feel human and relatable, albeit in uncomfortable ways. Among the film's best scenes is a conversation among Barbara, Ivy, and Karen joking and drinking together. Despite their drastic differences, the (admittedly warped) sisterly bond of the trio comes together with remarkable clarity. 

While the women are out dominating the screen, the men (none of them Westons by blood) are less successful. There's a subplot involving Barbara's husband Bill (Ewan McGregor), as well as one involving Karen's (Juliette Lewis) sleazy boyfriend (Dermot Mulroney), but they're used more to develop the great women around them. Only Chris Cooper makes much of an impact as his own individual, and it's a testament to his talent that he communicates so much with so little. Meanwhile, Benedict Cumberbatch, while certainly a talented actor, is a minor disaster as Cooper and Martindale's son Little Charles. The brief moments with Charles making his way to the Weston home are the lowest of the films lows. It's too bad that his character has such a pivotal connection to the underlying plot. 

Thankfully, the men are mostly afterthoughts, with the women allowed to take center stage in a way that's far too uncommon. Wells' direction ranges from bumbling to bland, but Letts' voice comes through so powerfully thanks to the clear emotional investment of just about everyone on screen. August: Osage County won't be remembered as high art years down the line, but as a vehicle for some superbly written and acted dark comedy, it certainly gets the job done. While I doubt it fully captures the greatness of the source material, it's certainly not a bad place to start.

Grade: B/B-

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