August: Osage County

Directed By: John Wells

Starring: Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Abigail Breslin, Benedict Cumberbatch, Juliette Lewis, Julianne Nicholson, Margo Martindale, Dermot Mulroney, Sam Shepard, and Misty Upham

Earlier this week, Emma Thompson was named Best Actress at the National Board of Review awards dinner in New York.  The Saving Mr. Banks star was honored by fellow actress Meryl Streep.  Unlike blander ceremonies such as the Golden Globes and the Oscars, this awards dinner is a little more casual.  Everyone knows who's won each award long before they arrive at the ceremony.  With this in mind, Streep decided to take some jabs at Walt Disney, a central figure in Thompson's Saving Mr. Banks.  Presenting some reasonably strong evidence to support her case, Streep proceeded to call Walt Disney a racist, gender bigot, and anti-Semite.  She had some strong words for the legendary animator, all while presenting an award to Emma Thompson.

I'm not here to say whether Streep was right or wrong in her statements about Disney, but I will definitely give her points for boldness.  It takes one tough lady to come out swinging at one of the most beloved figures in the entertainment industry of all time.  That being said, it's always interesting to see her demonstrate the same strength in life as she does on the big screen.  After all, Streep is an actress who's made a career out of portraying strong women like Miranda Priestly, Sister Aloysius, and Margaret Thatcher to name a few.  With this in mind, I can't help but think that there's a little of the real Meryl Streep in her latest character Violet Weston in August: Osage County.

Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard) has gone missing, and his wife Violet (Streep) has fallen to pieces.  Already addicted to prescription drugs and afflicted with mouth cancer, her missing husband may just be too much for the feisty pill popper.  With all that's happening, Violet's sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale) and brother-in-law Charles (Chris Cooper) come to her house to comfort her during this tough time.  Though often they try to avoid their adversarial mother, her daughters Barbara (Julia Roberts), Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), and Karen (Juliette Lewis) come home as well.  Coming together again as a family at their home in Osage County, Oklahoma after ages apart, little do the Westons know that Beverly won't be coming home.

By the time most of the family gets to Violet's house, the sheriff arrives with news that they've found Beverly and that he's drowned himself.  The film chronicles Beverly’s funeral and the aftermath of his family being together once again.  Nothing gets past Violet, and she makes it clear throughout the next several days.  Violet has no problem calling out Barbara and her toxic relationships with her estranged husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) and her pothead daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin).  She has no problem telling Ivy to put on some make-up and find a man.  She even tells her daughter Karen that she'll get uglier with age despite her new man of the month Steve (Dermot Mulroney).  All in all, a grieving Violet does a lot of truth-telling in the wake of Beverly's suicide.  Later, their cousin Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch) arrives with bombshell news for the family.

Every now and then, there's a film getting just decent ratings elsewhere for which I'll go to bat and tout its excellence.  Cloud Atlas was the last film for which I really did so.  August: Osage County is now the next.  Adapted from the stage play by Tracy Letts, the film gives us an uncensored look at the insane Weston family.  Riddled by petty conflicts and plenty of skeletons in their closets, this disconnected clan is emblematic of many families in our modern society.  Recognizing that the strength of this film is just showing the madness of the Westons unfiltered, director John Wells just let's his actors go for it.  With pale cinematography and a mellow score, Wells really takes a light-handed approach in crafting August: Osage County.  The only way in which his imprint is fairly evident is the film's measured pacing.  Wildly entertaining and providing a good look at many of the problems that afflict each and every one of our families, Wells's adaptation of the acclaimed stage play is a knockout film.

At the head of the Weston family, we have the iconic Meryl Streep.  In recent years, Streep has portrayed more composed women in her more serious roles.  While Violet Weston is a headstrong woman, she's not really that strong.  Taking pill after pill and smoking every chance she gets, she's a self-inflicted wreck.  Understanding this, Streep delves right into this character at the start of the film with an immensely compelling performance.  She's at her best when she's high as a kite dancing aimlessly to selections such as Eric Clapton's "Lay Down Sally".  As flawed as this character is with her own problems, Violet is often quite adversarial with her family.  With all of her “truth-telling”, she tears them down one-by-one throughout the film and boxes herself in against them all.  What's amazing about this is that Streep is often in confrontation on screen with the rest of her fellow cast members, and August: Osage County boasts a large ensemble cast.  It takes one hell of a performer to be able to hold her own with all the other cast members shining brightly as well.  In rare form, Streep rises to the occasion as usual here.

While I could go on all day long about Streep's incredible performance, there are other women who bring quite a bit to the film as well.  Mirroring Streep's performance and gradually becoming an alienated member of the Weston family, Julia Roberts really gives a strong performance as Barbara.  In the film's most prominent supporting role, she really does show us a tougher side that she hasn't shown too much on the big screen in prior performances.  For her part as Violet's sister Mattie Fae, Margo Martindale brings an equally steely character to the big screen.  She's a tough-talking, mean-spirited woman who's lived a hard life and is not afraid to tell it.  We also have Julianne Nicholson as the introvert Ivy and Juliette Lewis as social butterfly Karen.  They do quite well in these roles.

The men in August: Osage County rise to the occasion as well.  For his part as Charles Aiken, the newly dubbed patriarch of the Weston family, Chris Cooper is the moral compass of the film.  Delivering one of the best prayers in recent film history and providing plenty of unsolicited advice to his fellow family members, his acting chops are on full display here.  As Cooper's on-screen son Little Charles, Benedict Cumberbatch takes a step back from the antagonists he's portrayed in Star Trek Into Darkness and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug in the past year.  In this performance, he shows a softer side as this young man trying to declare who he really is to his family.  We also have Ewan McGregor and Dermot Mulroney giving solid performances as Barbara's cold husband Bill and Karen's slick-talking fiancé Steve.

I'm sure that it's abundantly clear that I have plenty of love for August: Osage County.  Fueled by fierce performances from all involved, this adaptation of Tracy Letts's stage play hits all the right notes.  Thanks to John Wells and his impressive ensemble headlined by Streep, the fragility and severity of family life are front and center here.  The outstanding August: Osage County gets a sober rating.