Based on a Pulitzer Prize winning play of the same name, August Osage County represents the end to a stellar year for movies featuring incredible ensemble casts. How did we movie lovers get so lucky as to have movie after movie featuring the best actors working today?
Director John Wells and playwright-turned-screenwriter Tracy Letts focused on transitioning the story’s limited set, constrained by the Broadway stage, into the sweeping, picturesque landscape of Oklahoma; it is easy to tell this film was shot on-location. However, while the characters in the film constantly complain about the merciless Oklahoma heat, August Osage County did not sizzle the way I had hoped. Maybe it’s because of the misleading trailer, which makes the movie seem more like an audience-friendly Steel Magnolias-style southern dramedy, instead of the heartbreaking story of a dysfunctional family; or maybe it was that the dialogue seemed to be written more for a stage play than a motion picture. Either way, at times the amazing performances of the all-star cast overshadowed the storyline. Don’t get me wrong, August Osage County is still a good movie, but this isn’t in the same league with the other Oscar-hopefuls released this past month.
The movie centers around the Weston family, who gather together when Beverly, the patriarch of the family (Sam Shepard), goes missing. Because their cancer-stricken mother Violet (Meryl Streep) is going through such a difficult time (and has a history of prescription drug abuse) the three daughters, Barbara (Julia Roberts), Karen (Juliette Lewis), and Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) gather at the family home for moral support. Also in attendance are Karen’s new husband (Dermot Mulroney), Barbara’s estranged husband (Ewan McGregor) and pouty teenage daughter (Abigail Breslin) and Violet’s sister (Margo Martindale), brother-in-law (Chris Cooper) and nephew (Benedict Cumberbatch). Violet also has a live-in Native American housekeeper/cook (Missy Upham) that she verbally abuses regularly. Phew, quite the group of people!
Due to Violet’s no holds barred “truth-tellin”, she is extremely hard to get along with and has estranged many members of the family, especially Barbara (who is too strong-willed to diplomatically deal with her mother’s viciousness like her sisters). When Beverly’s body is eventually discovered in a lake after an apparent suicide, the family devolves into an even more heartbreaking state of chaos. While death typically ushers in reflection and supportive family time, in the Weston household, the time following the funeral becomes a showcase for deep-seated problems to finally come to the surface. They say only time will heal, but in the case of the Westons, it may take a little more than that.
The acting in this movie, especially the performances of Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, and Margo Martindale are three of the best female performances this year. Unsurprisingly, Streep’s ability to completely transform into a role, creating a character we have never seen her play before, is what proves she is the best actress working today. Her portrayal of Violet is cringe-worthy in the best sense of the word. I love when a performance is able to elicit so many emotions from the audience, and Streep does so in spades. At times I didn’t know whether to hate her, be amused by her insanity, or feel sorry for her. Not to mention, I don’t know of many actors that would want to spend their days in barely any makeup and wigs with sparse hair, but Streep has no time for such vain concerns.
Roberts is also spectacular, giving her best performance since Erin Brockovich. She embodies everything the audience is feeling and thinking during the movie, actually being the voice that will stand up to her over-bearing mother. The scene of Barbara screaming at her mother to “eat the fish” is one of my favorites in a film this year.
I cannot shout praises about Margo Martindale loud enough. She is one of the best actresses working today and I am so happy to see her get to work with actors that highlight her talents. She has been doing character work for years, most notably in Justified (where she won an Emmy) and more recently in The Americans. It is unbelievable how she is so good, she never appears to be acting and her down-to-earth Southern charm hypnotizes me every time. At least for me, she steals every scene she is in.
While I did spotlight three actresses, each actor in the film finds a way to bring individuality to their respective role, which enables each character stand out amongst the rest. This feat is hard in a movie that features such a strong ensemble cast, but that is what makes August Osage County stand out. These spectacular performances, at times, overpower the plot and the marketing for the film does make the storyline appear more jovial than it actually is. However, if you want to see some of the best performances this year (and check boxes on your Oscar ballot), make sure you see August Osage County! Just know what you’re getting yourself into; fun light-hearted comedy this is not.
My Review: B