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  • Writer's pictureBen Kemper

August: Osage County, the movie

Or: “A Fine and Pleasant Misery”

There is nothing more entertaining than a family sick and suffering from itself. While it’s not much fun to be in the midst of that situation, or even watch it from across the street, the greatest, and most lasting dramas in western literature all prove to be different vines on the same trellis: Medea, King Lear, Hedda Gabbler, The Seagull, The Piano Lesson, Rabbit Hole. It’s no wonder that Tracy Letts, Reaper and Binder of the High Planes, walked home with the Pulitzer for penning August: Osage County and why his stark but star studded adaptation stirs, in this critics gnarled heart, the satisfaction of watching misery burrow deep and breed.

Celebrated Oklahoman poet Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard) has come to the end of his rope. For more years than anyone would care to count he has nursed his alcoholism like an exotic orchid while his acid, rarely lucid wife Violet (Meryl Streep) stumbles around their lonely home on the High Planes, popping pills for pleasure and to lesson the pain of her mouth cancer. Shortly after hiring Johnna (Misty Upham), a housemaid and cook, Beverly disappears into the wild, prompting his family to descend as one to comfort Violet and brace for the worst news. In the long weekend of sniping and smashing and a general simmering of tensions, Violet’s three daughters “Strip their sleeves and show their emotional scars”: Barbara (Julia Roberts) is coping with an apologetically adulterous husband (Ewan McGregor) and a distant teenage daughter, Karin (Juliette Lewis) has returned to a house in pre-prepped morning giddily toeing a......vastly unsuitable fiancee, and Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) is nursing a secret happiness which maybe the taster to the bitterest poison this woebegon clan have yet supped. Oh yes, its a delightful time at the movies.

A firm fact you can set your faith in is that the book is always going to be better than the film. But a well penned play can sometimes find room to grow and stretch on film and still maintain its beating heart, its cutting wit, its hummingbird pace, all of which August: Osage County has in spades. Director John Wells and cinematographer Adriano Goldman allow the freedom of the great outdoors to put the play in perspective: hopping around the table at a disastrous family dinner, lingering on the dark, still rooms of the Weston manse, penning an elegant farewell in a cloud of swirling dust, and taking in the bare and brittle beauty of the High Planes; that unwelcoming country where the rolling hills, knotted trees and sheer expanse of sky can seep into a soul and make it behave ever so unnaturally.

Onto this stage troop a grizzled but well tuned cast, equally articulate as the storytelling and epic as the landscape, as need requires. Streep sits down to her task with her usual artistry and goes so far as to make two excellent performances out of one good role: the valium addled Violet, lurching and giggling her way around the house, ducking and weaving like a whisky dipped rook and the harsh and commanding Violet, coiling and twining like a great wyrm; spitting fiery, and completely truthful, disparagements from her flaming, cancerous maw. Roberts measures up well to her superior, both in taking abuse and dishing it back, but never quite manages to live up to Barbara’s roll as de facto heroine of the story. It should be noted that Upham is the undisputed de jure heroine, not given much in the way of story impact, character development or screen time but aptly slides into Johanna’s intentions, whether they be to achieve invisibility while her employer rages or hoist a shovel to stove the head of evil in. In contrast, Barbara’s rage and sorrow are convincing but are just a little too pursed, a little too academy-pitched. She is not helped by the usually reliable McGregor, who’s estrangement seems to translate into audience estrangement as well, though like Roberts has some splendid moments.

The real gem of the performance can be found with Nicholson. In the midst of all the prepackaged angst brought down, Ivy, the girl who stayed behind, steadily sails on an even keel, never suspecting the upcoming reef that will destroy her utterly. No one in the cast exceeds the bounds of believability but Nicholson delivers a truly authentic performance, keeping her struggles tight clenched and close, trying to harden her eyes and her heart even as the one clouds with tears and the other cracks asunder. She plays a wonderful duet of subtlety and sweetness with her cousin Lil’ Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch) a fretful but good hearted man with a desire to please. Two other excellent performances are Violet’s sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale) and her husband Charles Aiken (Chris Cooper). Seemingly a pair of Good Ol’ Oklahomans both actors easily take to reign the twists that Lett’s has laid out for them: Martindale dolling out more secrets than meets the eye in Mattie Fae and Cooper, always reliable, trying to hold up some semblance of dignity, as well as a great deal of humor.

It is Cooper who delivers the foundation line of the play, the line I asked myself over and over again and that I hope you, dear reader, will parrot: “Why can’t folks just be respectful t’ one another?” It’s a question. Reckoning the of amount of abuse thoughtfully crafted for this film, and the countless cases of thoughtlessly natural abuse happening every day, can bog a soul down to the very pit of despair. But there are moments of kindness, moments of love, moments of understanding to be turned over and kept close in these two hours. And even if they are ripped away we can enjoy the tempest in the knowledge that August: Osage County sits proudly in a pedigree of plays about families going to hell, and that this fine and pleasant misery is what immortal drama is all about.

Subtitle reverently lifted from Idaho Wit Patrick F. McManis.

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