Sunday, January 19, 2014

Unimpressive Oscarbait: I Keep Waiting For August: Osage County To Take Off.

The Good: Moments of performance, Some of the lines, Moments of humor.
The Bad: Hard to empathize with the characters, Sterile direction, Bland plot
The Basics: With an incredible cast, August: Osage County might be an acting showcase, but it still nets a painfully dull movie for the most part.

Before sitting down to watch August: Osage County, I became convinced of a simple premise: the main reason Meryl Streep is cast in movies these days is so the movie will get noticed during Oscar Pandering Season. It’s been years since anyone tried releasing a film with Meryl Streep outside Oscar Pandering Season – Julie & Julia (reviewed here!) was the last I know of – and while I suppose it is as good a reason as any to put Meryl Streep in a movie, it would be nice if the films for which she was cast had substance to back them up.

I mention this at the top of my review of August: Osage County because this is a movie with a massive cast of talented performers, including Meryl Streep, that goes nowhere as a film. This is not to say that Meryl Streep is not wonderful in August: Osage County - because she is – but one suspects that director John Wells loaded the film with Streep, Benedict Cumberbatch, Chris Cooper, Julia Roberts and Ewan McGregor in the hopes that viewers would be so blown away by who was on the screen that they would not notice that the movie is pretty boring. And I write that as one who loves the film Magnolia (reviewed here!). In fact, in her best moments in August: Osage County, Meryl Streep’s performance is reminiscent of Jason Robards’s performance in Magnolia as a person suffering through a painful end of life period.

Shortly after Beverly Weston sets his wife up with a caretaker, he disappears, leaving his wife Violet to die on her own (for all he apparently cares). Violet’s daughter, Ivy, calls Barbara and Barbara, her estranged husband Bill and their daughter Jean, return to their family’s house. Violet’s sister, Mattie Fae Aiken and her husband Charlie, come to help out as well. When Beverly’s body is recovered (having drown himself), the other daughter Karen and her older fiancĂ©, Steve, show up for the funeral. Missing the funeral is Charlie and Mattie Fae’s son, Little Charlie, though he shows up for the post-funeral meal.

With the full family together after the funeral, the Westons, Aikens, and Fordhams sit down for one of the most uncomfortable meals in cinematic history. There, Violet spitefully sets family members against each other (and her) by claiming right to all of the money Beverly left (though the will was never legally changed) and the family tries to put up with the venomous woman, despite knowing that she doesn’t have very long left herself. Over the course of the stay, Little Charlie and Ivy’s affair comes out – though their true relationship is not disclosed to Little Charlie – and Steve tries to use weed to get Jean pliable enough to rape. As Violet’s pill-popping increases, the family falls apart, leaving only misery in her wake.

August: Osage County works, when it does, because it is funny. When it is not gut-wrenchingly, excruciatingly uncomfortable, August: Osage County has some very funny lines. Chris Cooper is in rare form as Charlie; his bit about eating some good fear is hilariously delivered and it’s easy to see the charm he possesses and portrays in almost every scene of August: Osage County. Cooper plays Charlie’s love for his son as perfectly organic and beautifully delivered (the moment he stands up for Little Charlie is one of the film’s high points). During the meal scenes, August: Osage County is reminiscent of Peep World (reviewed here!) for its charm, complicated dynamics, and the way the expert cast members play off one another.

Sadly, the comedy in August: Osage County ends. It does not merely end: it dies a fast, hard, miserable death. From the moment Steve first ambles up to Jean, there is something sinister about him. When he becomes more aggressive with her, the film commits to a tone that it never turns back from. For all the spite and horribleness of Violet, other characters managed to get in amusing lines before that. As a result, August: Osage County has a flow and some sense of enjoyment until that point. After that point, though, the film becomes oppressive and downright miserable.

While some of the characters are interesting (oddly, in a film dominated by wonderful women, only Ivy and Johnna Monevata – the caretaker – are truly likable), few are really decent people. Charlie is good, Little Charlie is so deeply caring, and even Bill has some moments, but the film is largely about dysfunction and how people react to the spiteful Violet. Violet is arguably Meryl Streep’s meanest role since The Devil Wears Prada (reviewed here!).

That makes the reason to endure the two hours of August: Osage County the acting. Everyone in the film perfectly embodies their characters and they perform admirably. While Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts continue to get most of the attention, I was impressed by Julianne Nicholson. Nicholson plays Ivy and she has great onscreen chemistry with Benedict Cumberbatch (Little Charlie). She plays Ivy with a deep, restrained sadness for most of the movie and she emotes so much with her eyes that it is hard not to empathize with her character.

That said, it’s unsurprising that August: Osage County did not get nominated for the Best Picture Oscar; it is a ponderous, painful movie. It’s worth watching once for the impressive acting, but unfathomable to want to sit through a second time as it is largely unenjoyable, regardless of how well it captures a slice of reality.

For other works with Benedict Cumberbatch, please check out my reviews of:
The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug
12 Years A Slave
Star Trek Into Darkness
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy


For other movie reviews, please visit my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing.

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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