by Hiko Mitsuzuka
“It’s like the acting Olympics,” Julia Roberts told Entertainment Weekly earlier this year when she had described her experience shooting August: Osage County, the star-studded adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play.
I couldn't have said it better myself.
Written for the screen by the play’s very own scribe, Tracy Letts, August is one giant smorgasbord of performances, heightened by a script loaded with meaty morsels any actor would kill for. For the uninitiated, it's about the coming together of a broken family at an Oklahoma farmhouse after the brood’s poetry-loving patriarch (Sam Shepard) disappears. From there, long-simmering tensions erupt as family secrets are exposed and grudges explode across the dinner table.
Directed by John Wells, and produced by George Clooney and partner Grant Heslov, the film is an Academy Award campaign manager’s wet dream. Meryl Streep heads the dysfunctional Weston clan as Violet, a pill-popping cancer patient whose vicious rhetoric cuts through each scene like a switchblade. Streep marinates herself in the role, and she lays out a banquet of a performance, skillfully balancing nuance with over-the-top moments. Which begs to ask: Can the woman really do no wrong?
As for the rest of the cast...Ewan McGregor quietly sits on the sidelines as the penitent father of a pot-smoking teen (Abigail Breslin) and the husband of Roberts’s Barb, a middle-ager who is fed up with her family’s self-destructive ways. Juliette Lewis brilliantly struts in as Karen, the sister from Florida with a Ferrari-driving fiancé (a slick Dermot Mulroney). Then there’s Julianne Nicholson as wallflowery Ivy, the secretive younger sister who won’t spill the beans on her new beau. Rounding out an already impressive ensemble is Margo Martindale as Violet’s equally secretive sister Mattie and Chris Cooper as Charles, whose emotionally stunted son, “Little” Charles, happens to be played by Benedict Cumberbatch.
But back to that dinner table scene, which is the anticipated crux of the film, the meticulously detailed stage from which the money shot is taken (just look at that telling poster). All is gloriously let out in one cathartic brawl in which Barb snaps and lashes out at the rampaging Violet. The lenghty scene unfolds like a mini disaster flick; you know where it's headed, and for those who haven't seen the critically-acclaimed play, nothing can brace you for what's really coming. Roberts reveals a side of her we've never seen before in this mother-versus-daughter battle that is raw, honest, and necessarily uncomfortable.
Also? It's just a hoot seeing America's Sweetheart viciously spit out the line, "Eat the fish, bitch."
But the film isn't entirely the Meryl and Julia Show. Each player gets his or her moment to command the screen and contribute to this character-driven tapestry, especially the aforementioned Lewis and Martindale, who at one point, comes off as brutal and vulnerable within the span of a few minutes.
Halfway through the film, in a moment of crisis, Barb utters another line, one that should resonate with anyone with a family:
“Thank God we can’t tell the future. We’d never get out of bed.”
Familial ennui has never been so beautifully harsh, funny, and true.
August: Osage County opens in theaters on Christmas (just in time for your equally screwed up family get-togethers).