Friday, January 24, 2014

August: Osage County — A blistering summer

August: Osage County (2013) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rating: R, for frequent profanity and earthy dialogue, and occasional drug content

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.24.14

Some children dream, worshipfully, of growing up to become just like their parents.

Other children have nightmares about that same possibility.

As Violet (Meryl Streep, left) grows increasingly annoyed by a clumsy before-meal
prayer that stumbles its way from awkward to tedious, daughters Ivy (Julianne
Nicholson, center) and Karen (Juliette Lewis) close their eyes and wait for the
inevitable explosion.
August: Osage County, adapted by Tracy Letts from his Pulitzer Prize-winning play, charts the highs (very few) and lows (too many to tabulate) of the extended Weston family, brought by unexpected tragedy to the Northern Oklahoma town that several of them fled, years ago, in self-defense.

Although Oklahoma isn’t technically a southern state — nor is it one of the plains states, despite an early comment by one of these characters — the tone here is very much in the dysfunctional Southern gothic tradition of Tennessee Williams, Beth Henley and numerous other playwrights who regard this classic American setting as less a geographical place, and more a regional attitude.

Southern families argue in a style all their own, tempers often as high as the mercury-shattering thermometers. And they don’t merely bicker; they dig at each other with rapacious delight, unerringly targeting each victim’s soft underbelly. Characters in such settings turn sniping into an art form, perhaps even an Olympic sport.

It’s impossible to imagine Northern California families quarrelling in such a fashion, no matter how strained the relations. The cadence, rhythm and circumstances are quintessentially rooted south of the Mason-Dixon line. Or thereabouts.

Be advised, then: Despite its mesmerizing script and bravura performances, August: Osage County is an endurance test in the manner of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. It’s not easy to watch people eviscerate each other for two hours, no matter how crisp the dialogue, or how striking the acting.

Most of the slicing and dicing emanates from family matriarch Violet Weston (Meryl Streep), an embittered, waspish harridan embracing old age with no grace whatsoever. Demonstrating that God does indeed possess a mordant sense of humor, Violet has just been diagnosed with mouth cancer, which has exacerbated her tendency to be a prescription junkie.

But the cancer hasn’t muted Violet’s bark, nor has it diminished her nicotine habit. Nothing is more ghastly — or darkly amusing, in a gallows humor sort of way — than watching Streep gently poke a cigarette into the less painful left corner of her mouth, and then fire it up so she can puff away.

And the cancer diagnosis isn’t the catalyst for the impromptu reunion, at least not directly. Violet’s husband Beverly, once a respected poet and author now content to slide into comfortable alcoholism, has gone on another of his infrequent “sojourns,” no doubt to escape his wife’s nasty tongue. But the circumstances are a bit different this time, because before departing he hired a young woman, Johnna (Misty Upham), to cook and clean. And that isn’t like him.

Violet’s sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale) hits the panic button, which assembles the troops. Violet’s eldest daughter Barbara (Julia Roberts), expecting only that her mother will need another stint in rehab, arrives with 14-year-old daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin) and estranged husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) in tow. Barbara and Bill, not having disclosed their marital discord, have agreed to play nice for the sake of family harmony.

We can imagine, given Violet’s watchful eye and sharp instincts, how long that secret will last.

Youngest Weston daughter Karen (Juliette Lewis) arrives next, with flashy new fiancé Steve (Dermot Mulroney) at the wheel of his red sports car. One glimpse of Steve, and we know he’s Bad News; we also deduce that Karen has made a career of wretched relationship choices, a failing that she defends during a stream-of-consciousness whine with Barbara.

Steve, living down to our worst expectations, catches a whiff of marijuana in Jean’s hair, and promises to set her up with some primo weed, as soon as they can get alone.

We’ve actually already met middle daughter Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), because she’s the one who stayed behind, to watch over her parents ... and mostly to function as a meek whipping post for her mother’s relentless lashings. If Barbara is the strong one, and Karen the ditz, then Ivy is the long-suffering loyal subject, having put her own life on hold for decades.

The clan is completed by Mattie Fae’s husband Charlie (Chris Cooper) and their son, Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch). Charlie is a kind-hearted pillar of integrity who does his best to maintain order and/or keep the peace under increasingly combustible circumstances; Little Charles, suffering from galloping insecurity, barely seems able to function in the big, wide world.

Although Letts’ script finds ample reasons for smaller subsets of these characters to mingle and chew at each other, during the several days that this narrative occupies, the film’s galvanic scene comes the one time everybody assembles around the massive dinner table. Television’s Blue Bloods has made a weekly tradition of its family Sunday dinner gathering, as a means of summing up recent events and sending viewers to bed with a comfortable smile; rest assured, comfort isn’t on Letts’ menu here.

But this soon-to-be-tempestuous meal also begins with the film’s funniest moment, as poor Charlie struggles with the demand that he lead a prayer. Never has anybody been less equipped for such an assignment, and Cooper flounders for what seems like days, while Streep’s eyes narrow in ever-greater exasperation, and we wait for the inevitable explosion of contempt.

You’ll want to laugh, but you likely won’t, for fear that, somehow, Streep’s malicious gaze will break the fourth wall and spot your insolence. At which point, God help you.

It’s difficult to know where to start, with a cast this strong. Certainly Streep and Roberts deserve their Oscar nominations — actress and supporting actress, respectfully — but director John Wells gets everybody to bring their A-game. Even Upham, in the quietest role — Johnna being a mostly passive observer — gets her moment to shine, in an unexpected manner.

Cinema has no shortage of actresses who’ve memorably tackled the “mother from hell” role, from Angela Lansbury (The Manchurian Candidate) and Shelley Winters (A Patch of Blue) to, going further back, Margaret Wycherly (White Heat) and Bette Davis (The Little Foxes). Streep, as she so often does, re-defines the template; her Violet is the stuff of nightmares, from the moment she first stumbles down the stairs, drug-intoxicated and hurling spiteful profanity like a dock worker.

As the film progresses, though, our sense of Violet shifts. To be sure, she’s a miserably cruel human being, but we can’t help admiring her survival instincts. And, as you’ll discover, Violet doesn’t always go for the jugular; she withholds some key verbal cruise missiles that arrive as third-act revelations. More to the point, despite her many and varied flaws, Violet emerges as a figure of pity: somebody we know will, one day, wind up dying alone.

That Streep draws such complex feelings from us, is nothing short of amazing. But it’s not merely her performance: Excellent as it is, she gets considerable ammunition from Letts’ perceptive and provocative dialogue.

Our impression, going in, is that Violet will be the focus of her own story. That’s not entirely true, because Violet is incapable of change. We gradually realize that Barbara is the key player here, because, despite every effort to do otherwise, she has become that which she most despises. She’s a terrible mother herself, wholly unable to cope with Jean’s premature (and quite clumsy) march into adulthood.

The question, then, is whether Barbara can surmount her own upbringing, and Roberts’ brutal, tight-lipped performance evokes the tragedy of a woman who can’t claw her way out of the purgatory she built for herself.

Lewis, with a string of flakes in her performance past, is right at home with Karen’s chronic anxiety. She feigns carefree insouciance, but it’s a pose. Watch her, during the aforementioned dinner scene; Lewis sits, stricken and silent, her face a portrait of terror, waiting for the verbal strike that would shatter her like glass.

Nicholson’s Ivy, though, is the heartbreaker. Her face isn’t quite a perfect mask, although Ivy clearly tries to withhold true feelings, the better to minimize any vulnerabilities that Violet might exploit. Nicholson’s gentle, wary performance evokes memories of Laura Winfield, from The Glass Menagerie: the same fragility and, we deduce, isolation from a world — a life — that has passed her by.

I’m always fascinated by the ease with which British actors slip into Deep South Americana characters; both McGregor and Cumberbatch do so effortlessly here. We don’t get a strong sense of McGregor’s Bill, although it’s not hard to imagine that his marital transgressions likely were self-defense as, over time, Barbara became more and more like her mother.

Cumberbatch, though, is a revelation: his Little Charles the frightened-bird antithesis of the Sherlock Holmes who strides so confidently across our TV screens these days. Between this film and 12 Years a Slave, Cumberbatch demonstrates an impressive range, and an uncanny ability to inhabit such decisively American roles.

Mulroney is the pluperfect heel; Martindale, all over the place these days, is her own force of nature as the aggressive Mattie Fae. Breslin, sadly, is too often shunted to the side; Wells doesn’t grant Jean as much screen time as Letts did on stage, and, as a result, Breslin doesn’t make her more than a one-note spoiled, self-absorbed teenager.

Shepard opens the film, both on camera and with an off-camera narrative voice — poetic and laden with weary regret — that perfectly sets the stage for what is to follow.

Considering this material’s origins, Wells and Letts “open it up” quite well; we never get the sense of claustrophobia that sometimes afflicts stage-to-film adaptations. Credit cinematographer Adriano Goldman, as well, for so deftly conveying the oppressive heat; his images almost shimmer with soul-draining fever.

Watching such a roster of scene-stealing actors work their way through such material is never less than exciting, even as the unfolding drama becomes increasingly difficult to endure. To reference the old cliché, it’s like watching a slow-motion train wreck; we want to look away, but can’t.

And, similarly, you won’t soon forget many of this film’s blisteringly vivid confrontations.

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