Thursday, January 23, 2014

The Cinema File #306: "August Osage County" Review

There is perhaps no better venue for the kind of over the top Acting! designed to bait awards than a story about family dysfunction. Playing on our own skewed relationships with our own families, these slice of life interludes are instantly relatable no matter how exaggerated and contrived they may be. August Osage County, based on a play by Tracy Letts, boasts a large and accomplished cast coming together in one room to see how much scenery can be chewed before the walls come down, all scrambling to out-act each other in time for Oscar season. The result is somewhat hit and miss, less profound than it wants to be, and sometimes wasteful of its few understated talents, but at the end of the day, its hard not to at least appreciate so many great performers given such free reign to do what they do best.

When the Weston family's enigmatic alcoholic patriarch mysteriously disappears, the family gets together to weather the crisis, only to find old wounds re-opened as they are reminded why they've tried so hard to avoid each other over the years. Chief among these is the walking wound of their pill popping, "truth" telling mother Violet, played with vicious exuberance by Meryl Streep in her most craven and forceful appeal for Academy gold in some time. Her steadfastly hammy performance sets the tone followed ably by the rest of the women in the family who, having all dealt with the consequences of having her in their lives in different ways each find their fragile status quo crumbling around them. Subtlety is not a virtue in the Weston house, and there's only so much one can take before even great actors wear out their welcome.

The first odd thing you might notice about the film is the dialogue, and specifically how alien it sounds in a movie that otherwise strives for such authenticity in its warts and all depiction of small town family life. The movie begins with a quote from T.S. Eliot as relayed by a circumspect poet wistfully commenting upon life as one might do in a suicide note or a last will and testament, but when we pan out to reveal who he's talking to, we find he's interviewing a live in nurse, his waxing philosophical coming across more like senility than profundity. For all its attempt to give these characters depth and the semblance of real life, rarely do they ever sound like real people, often having conversations that would work great in a play, but in a movie sound far too constructed and erudite. As Julia Roberts' character rides in with her family, she remarks about how the Plains are less a place and more a state of mind the way no one ever does, and so many moments in the movie feel equally divorced from reality.

Where the movie shines is in its unapologetically dark escalation of the Weston clan's long percolating tensions. There is no baseline of love and understanding to put all of the anger and resentment into a more palatable context, and no indication whatsoever that there is something intrinsic to the concept of family that connects these people beyond the coincidence of their shared genetics. These aren't spats that will eventually blow over when those involved realize what really matters and hug it out over a rebuilt dinner table, but rather full on blood feuds that are in many cases insurmountable. The narrative revolves around a series of interconnected relationships and conflicts therein that demand a complicated and decidedly messy outcome free of contrived resolutions, and for all its flim flam hokeyness, it doesn't pull any punches and ends on about as appropriately dour a note as it can.

I'm not sure whether the problem is too much structure or not enough, but August Osage County takes an unusual amount of dramatic potential from its cast and its setting and yet still just barely manages to come up just close to a good movie. I want to say somethings missing, but I can't imagine what that could possibly be considering they throw everything into the pot including incest and child molestation. Maybe the missing element was simply self control, specifically the guiding hand of a director capable of handling so many great performers and channeling their energy constructively rather than letting it explode so haphazardly over the whole movie. There's certainly a lot of power buzzing around these proceedings, but it never seems to have the focus to be fully taken advantage of. Its a movie ostensibly designed for actors where Benedict Cumberbach has the least screen time of almost any main character, which is as good a metaphor as anything for its penchant for missed opportunities. There's a lot to like about August Osage County, but its left up to you to collect it all and form it into something resembling an entertaining experience.
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