[Screen It]


(2013) (Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts) (R)

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Drama: An estranged family gets together following the patriarch's death and must deal with their various strained interpersonal dynamics.
Beverly Weston (SAM SHEPARD) is a famous poet living in Osage County, Oklahoma along with his wife, Violet (MERYL STREEP). Beverly has a drinking problem, while Violet is addicted to painkillers and such, partly stemming from her current battle with mouth cancer. Beverly explains the irony of that affliction -- considering Violet's caustic tendency to say whatever she thinks -- to their new housekeeper, Johnna (MISTY UPHAM).

Violet isn't happy with this change, but just when she's starting to get used to it, Beverly goes missing. While that's something he's done in the past, it and the subsequent discovery that he committed suicide causes the family to come together despite otherwise being estranged.

While adult daughter Ivy (JULIANNE NICHOLSON) has stayed local, her sister, Barbara (JULIA ROBERTS), comes in from Colorado with her husband, Bill (EWAN McGREGOR), from whom she's separated, and their 14-year-old daughter, Jean (ABIGAIL BRESLIN). Their other sister, Karen (JULIETTE LEWIS), arrives from Miami with her flashy fiancÚ, Steve (DERMOT MULRONEY). And Violet's sister, Mattie Fae (MARGO MARTINDALE), arrives with her husband, Charles (CHRIS COOPER), although their adult son, Little Charles (BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH), who Mattie Fae constantly belittles, ends up late for the funeral.

As they all get together, strained family dynamics built up over the years come to a head again, especially as they must deal with Violet's rude behavior and drug addiction.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
The old saying goes that the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. While that could be attributed to Isaac Newton and his observation of the realities of gravity, it's more commonly related to human offspring growing up into fairly close representations of one or both of their parents. Of course, that's not surprising considering the monkey see, monkey do aspect of such kids being in close proximity to their parental units for years on end.

Thus, it's not unusual that they observe, pick up and emulate certain behaviors, although the above saying is usually associated with some sort of bad attitude or pattern. And that's particularly true when it comes to being a mediocre to bad spouse and certainly a parent. That's quite evident in "August: Osage County," the all-star, big screen adaptation of Tracy Letts' Pulitzer Prize-winning play that debuted in Chicago in 2007 before moving on to Broadway later that same year.

Here, Meryl Streep plays the acid-tongued and foul-tempered matriarch of the Weston family that resides in the titular Oklahoma county (the "August" part of that refers to the time of year, something noted early in the film regarding the excessive heat but then seemingly forgotten about later on). As her worn-down, award-winning poet husband (Sam Shepard) likes to point out, she's ironically afflicted with the spot-on malady of mouth cancer.

When he goes missing and then ends up found dead, their estranged daughters and extended families arrive and it's not long before things pick up seemingly where they apparently left off. Julia Roberts plays the most defiant and opinionated of the bunch, which either caused or has been exacerbated by her husband (Ewan McGregor) cheating on her, none of which has helped their relationship with their moody teenage daughter (Abigail Breslin).

That girl draws the icky and lecherous attention of an obvious player (Dermot Mulroney) who's engaged to another sister (Juliette Lewis) who left long ago for the chic environs of Miami and hasn't looked back. Their other sister (Julianne Nicholson), however, has stayed behind and thus taken the brunt of abuse from their condescending mother.

While Streep's matriarch would otherwise appear to have gone somewhere off the deep end, she's still keenly observant and thus knows there's likely something up with Ivy and her first cousin (Benedict Cumberbatch) who takes his own share of abuse from his mom (Margo Martindale), all while his dad (Chris Cooper) looks on and bites his tongue. Throw in a new caretaker (Misty Upham) who witnesses all of this and wonders what the heck she's gotten herself into, and the stage (literally and figuratively) is set for some strained family dynamics.

Interestingly enough, the film is being advertised as something of a comedy, sometimes as a feel good sort of yarn, and at others as something a bit more blackened. While I understand that the original play is a dark comedy, either Letts (who adapted his own material into the screenplay) opted to jettison much of that hard to pull off tone, or director John Wells somehow managed to mishandle the material.

It's possible it's a combination of both. But not being familiar with the play and not having seen any advertisements before viewing this film, I didn't find any of it funny and am somewhat shocked it's being promoted that way. That said, while it occasionally teeters along the high-wire precipice of overwrought melodrama (especially as some light is shone on various third act plot revelations), I found it to be an engaging drama filled with terrific dialogue as well as strong to brilliant performances by a cast that just kept getting bigger and better as all of the players were finally introduced.

Surprising perhaps only to the handful of people who don't know of her and her long history of incredible work, Streep delivers the best work of the bunch. While many already crowned Cate Blanchett as best actress of 2013 for her superb work in "Blue Jasmine," I found Streep's performance equally as strong and possibly just a smidge better. Regardless of who ultimately wins the Oscar, it's just another feather in the veteran actresses' cap and clearly a lock on her 18th nomination.

Also likely to get some award love is Roberts who I've often liked better in dramatic rather than comedic or romantic comedy based roles. She more than believably pulls off the bitter yet still slightly concerned adult daughter persona and easily stands toe-to-toe with Streep in their various confrontations, be they big and boisterous or more subdued and introspective. They're the epitome of the tree and its apple, both now rotten to the core. The other family relationships only further drive home that thematic point and Letts thankfully doesn't get too preachy with the material to the point of feeling like you're watching a sermon.

What you will be watching is a delectable assortment of performances "unfairly" piled up in one film (making one wish they could have shared the love, not to mention skill, with other lesser works that really needed help in that regard), fueled by smart and spot-on dialogue and storytelling. Beyond obviously not being the right cup of tea for all viewers (especially those who go to the movies to escape such family drama), the occasional tendency to near but never stray into melodrama, and the sporadic but never distracting stagey feel of the production, I found this to be one of the better films of the year. Accordingly, "August: Osage County" rates as a 7 out of 10.

Reviewed December 7, 2013 / Posted December 25, 2013

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