Assoc. Arts & Culture Editor
There’s a common phrase that goes “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” The same can be said about movies, or in other words, “Don’t judge a movie by its trailer.” This phrase can especially be true for the dramedy “August: Osage County.” The trailers and commercials for it portray it as a light-hearted dysfunctional family movie with Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts and an all-grown-up Abigail Breslin, but for people who have seen the movie, or even Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play it’s based on, they know this film is anything but. In fact, it’s the polar opposite of a feel-good movie, but that doesn’t stop it from being a darkly funny yet touching and riveting story.
As the film opens, the audience is introduced to the patriarch of the Weston clan, Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard), an alcoholic poet, and Violet (Meryl Streep), his lewd-mouthed, pill-popping wife who is suffering cancer. Much to Violet’s disapproval, Bev hires a woman named Johnna as a live-in cook and caregiver for Violet. Not long afterwards, the Weston clan reunites in Osage County, Oklahoma, in the wake of Bev’s disappearance and suicide, and they all have brought their own secrets, grudges, and family pains along with them to Violet’s home. Among the arrivals are Violet and Bev’s three daughters, Barbara (Julia Roberts), Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), and Karen (Juliette Lewis). Ivy is the only daughter that has stayed close to home to keep an eye on her parents, while her other sisters have gone off on their own paths. Barbara comes from Colorado with her teenage daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin) and estranged husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) in tow. Karen, who is the youngest daughter as well as the more ditzy and carefree one, brings her womanizing fiancé (Dermot Mulroney) to the funeral. Violet’s sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale), whom Violet shares a very close bond with, arrives with her husband Charlie (Chris Cooper), and their hapless, socially awkward son Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch) unfortunately misses his uncle’s funeral after he misses his bus to Oklahoma.
As mentioned before, there are many secrets and unhealed wounds in the Weston family, and they all come to light in this film. Violet’s daughters try to deal with their mother’s drug-fueled rants, guilt trips and “back in my day” criticisms about their choices of lifestyles. She even tells Barbara that she was her father’s favorite and claims that she broke his heart when she left Osage County. Barbara’s husband had an affair with a younger woman and they can barely stand being in the same house as each other. Ivy is having an affair with her cousin Little Charles, and that affair comes close to being exposed throughout this film. Even Mattie Fae, who can be as brash as her sister but has her life and health much more intact, has her own secrets that could tear the family apart.
This movie is all about the cast, and there is never a dull moment in this movie with these types of actors playing these types of people. They all get their moments to shine and really make this movie. Lewis pulls off being the silly and somewhat delusional Karen, and Cooper is understated as the film’s lone voice of reason who can’t understand why everyone can’t just get along.
Streep and Roberts are definitely the best two performances in the film. Streep’s raw, riveting performance as Violet, which has earned her her 18th Oscar nomination, carefully yet impressively walks the line between savage and emotionally scarred, whether she’s in one of her drug-fueled hazes, slurring insults at family members, or even opening up to her daughters about her own upbringing. Her character may be vicious, viper-tongued and hardly ever sober, but there’s also a sadness and desperation behind it all.
Roberts as control-freak Barbara is an unpredictable whirlpool of anger, both towards her mother and herself, and seems to hold a bigger grudge against Violet than her sisters. This is especially made clear during an argument at the post-funeral dinner that ends with Barbara hurling herself on her mother, trying to strangle her bottle of prescription medicine from her and screaming “I’m running things now!” However, the audience also comes at the depressing realization that this is a woman who was desperate to escape her dysfunctional past and family life, and even despite all that, she still managed to wind up just like her mother.
With its sharp script, seamless direction and flawless cast, “August: Osage County” is definitely a movie worth seeing. While it definitely has its funny moments, its dramatic moments and character realizations hit like a truck. It’s engaging, darkly comedic, and unapologically abrasive.
“August: Osage County” is still playing in theaters. It has been nominated for two Oscars: Meryl Streep for Best Actress and Julia Roberts for Best Supporting Actress.