Film Review – August: Osage County
August: Osage County
An ensemble of talented, well-known actors has always been a worry for me. When that much talent is thrown together, it can mean pretty much one of two things: first, the material is really good and it has gotten the interest of several people who want to be a part of it; or second, the material is weak and the filmmakers hope that name recognition and talent can cover that up. The second option is what we have in the new film August: Osage County.
Family issues are always popular subject matter, and this film has them in spades. As a family emergency brings everyone home, familiar stereotypes emerge to define the characters, and they stay stuck in these archetypes, never moving beyond them. We have Violet (Meryl Streep), a pill-popper who says whatever comes to her mind; Barbara (Julia Roberts), the daughter who left; Karen (Juliette Lewis), the flighty one looking for a man and always picking some loser. Her fiancé, Steve (Dermot Mulroney), is an obvious scumbag who we know will do something inappropriate at some point. Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), the good daughter who stayed home, is one of the few with some depth, seeing the truth about what her family is. We also have Violet’s sister, Mattie Fae Aiken (Margo Martindale), who is loud; her husband Charles (Chris Cooper), who, while well meaning, is a very simple man; and their son, Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch), beaten down by his mother’s criticisms, but trying to be a good person.
Violet keeps waiting for Barbara to come home. The implication is that Barbara had the potential to be more than what she is when she was young—in many ways, she’s supposed to represent someone who is better than the rest of the family. Despite this, she is by far the biggest blank slate of the group. She left home, she is on the verge of breaking up with her husband, Bill Fordham (Ewan McGregor), and she doesn’t relate to her kid, Jean (Abigail Breslin). This is the extent of who she is, and it only has importance because other characters place importance on her, even though we are never given a sense as to why. I believe it is because the plot needs a person to go to when we aren’t watching Streep being drugged-out. Roberts is never allowed to do anything more than any other person in a scene.
The biggest draw for most viewers will be Streep, who is appropriately obnoxious and downright cruel. While certain to get her an Oscar nomination, the performance is over the top. She does the yelling well and she shows the tics and other effects the drugs have had on her character over time, but there seems to be little else but bluster to keep us paying attention. Even Violet spouting some backstories does nothing to give her character any depth or feeling, which draws us away from the performance.
The only bright spots are Ivy and Little Charles. They are the most kind, which is always welcomed, but we also get to see them trying to be something different. Of all the speeches, Ivy’s about the family being strangers who only share blood is by far the most honest, and comes from a place that actually gives meaning to the character. Little Charles doesn’t have as much to do, but seeing the way his parents interact with him and his desire to be good at least shapes him as a character.
This film is based on a play and it feels like it. Too much is stuck in one place; it never learns to breathe. Most of the action is set up to be a big family conflict. A big speech turns into a fight, more terrible are things are said, which leads into some surprise revelation. This leads to the next speech and the next revelation, etc. This could work if the speeches added something new to these characters, but they remain the same. At no point do we really learn anything about them; in fact, many are so underused that the question becomes: what is the point of them even being there?
Beyond making you appreciate your own family and loved ones, director John Wells gives us nothing else. Most of the performances are stuck in stereotypes that leave little room to be much but different terrible people. Creating a story with all awful characters can be off-putting, but it doesn’t necessarily sink a film. However, when the characters are also so bland and there is no real sense of where the unlikeable traits come from, then it just becomes an exercise in cruelty for the viewer.