Friday, December 27, 2013

Movie with Abe: August: Osage County

August: Osage County
Directed by John Wells
Released December 27, 2013

It’s often the case with plays adapted for the big screen that they just don’t translate, and the film feels too much like a play performed in front of a camera (“Sleuth” is a particularly potent example). Re-envisioning an acclaimed play can be dangerous because expectations are too high and a new take on the same story just isn’t necessary. In this case, a stacked cast with three Oscar winners and over twenty past Oscar nominations among the whole of them means this adaptation has a lot going for it. Parts of the film work, and others don’t.

Meryl Streep stars as Violet, the foulmouthed matriarch of the Weston family, whose mouth cancer has turned her into a vile, cruel person. Her husband Beverly (Sam Shepard) hires her a caretaker and then disappears. When it is revealed that he has taken his own life, his family gradually returns to their quiet Oklahoma home, and, with each new arrival, there is plenty of noise and baggage to be sorted out and miserable arguments to be had between strongly opinionated family members with a good deal of complicated family history.

There are many prickly moments and uncomfortable discussions in “August: Osage County,” some of which are darkly comical in nature, while others are less amusing. At their best, they are powerful and involving, and at other times they are merely awkward and off-putting. The balance is far from even, and, as a result, this is a splintered film that manages to be moving only occasionally throughout its runtime.

Leading the cast is Streep, who doesn’t have to try much to garner universal acclaim. Here, she overdoes it considerably, and it’s in her subtler moments that she’s more effective. The opposite is true of Julia Roberts, who is best in passionate fits of sarcasm and fury as Violet’s daughter Barbara. Julianne Nicholson and Benedict Cumberbatch are strong members of the ensemble, as are Abigail Breslin and Juliette Lewis, and the best in show award goes to the terrific Margo Martindale as Violet’s sister Mattie Fae. The Best Ensemble prizes this show has been nominated for are somewhat deserved, though the cast isn’t always as cohesive as it could be. This is a fiery story with plenty of potential, and while the big screen didn’t offer any particular advantages that the stage wouldn’t, it could and should have been a more well-rounded experience.


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