Thursday, January 30, 2014

August: Osage County

Alternate Title:  Queen Lear

One sentence synopsis:    A bitter, estranged family is forced to come together when the patriarch commits suicide.

Things Havoc liked:  I've said before that Meryl Streep is the greatest actor in the world, and I stand by that statement. I have seen bad films with Streep in them (Out of Africa, The River Wild), but never a bad performance of hers, not once in three and a half decades of acting in more films than I could possibly see. She is one of a very small group of actors (perhaps even the only one) whose mere presence in a film guaranteed that I will see it, irrespective of the movie's subject matter, genre, or general quality. August: Osage County is another opportunity for Streep to show off her acting talents, playing as she does a character alternately over-medicated, bitter, angry, spiteful, and completely despondent. Piece of cake.

Streep plays Violet Weston, the mother of three forty-something daughters from whom she is more or less estranged, wife of Beverley Weston (played by the immortal Sam Shepard), a drug addict and cancer patient, bitter at the fact that two of her daughters left Oklahoma, largely, we assume to get away from her. In a film packed with talent, Meryl Streep once again blows everyone else off the screen. Her character is at times so drugged as to be borderline incoherent, sometimes so vicious and spiteful as to invite a beating, sometimes so perceptive that she can discern things assumed by everyone present to have been kept from her, all the time maintaining the same defiant attitude towards all who cross her door. Narcissistic and fiercely proud, her performance resembles that of King Lear in more than just the setup, and it's not hard to imagine her shaking her fist at the heavens in vain defiance. So pitilessly brutal is she in her dissection of the weaknesses of every member of her family, that one wonders how it is that anyone puts up with her at all, at least until we reflect on the fact that the story does begin with her husband's suicide, and the movie's poster portrays one of her daughters trying to beat her to death.

The daughter in question is played by Julia Roberts, a woman my father once described as "the homeliest pretty woman in Hollywood". Roberts is a middling actor at best, I've always found, but now in her late forties, she is finally beginning to take on roles that do not require her to be pretty and smile at the camera, and to be honest, this is the best thing I've ever seen her do. She plays Barbara, eldest of the three daughters, who shows up when her father goes missing with soon-to-be-ex-husband (Ewan MacGreggor) and daughter (Abigail Breslin). Her own marital life in ruins, Barbara is now forced to deal with her mother's resentment of the fact that she left home (for reasons that should be obvious), perverse delight in the collapse of her marriage, and general pain-in-the-assness, qualities she, by and large, also shares. Indeed, this is the most unlikeable I've ever seen Julia Roberts go, and as things fall apart, she unsheathes claws as sharp as her mother's, revealing herself as just as bitter and resentful as anyone else. Apples and trees.

The cast in this film is so good that we could be here all day, so I'll try to be brief. The infinitely reliable Chris Cooper plays Charles, Violet's Brother-in-Law, with wisdom and patience sorely lacking in the rest of the film. His comment, midway through one of Streep's vicious "truth-telling" episodes (excuses to barrage her relatives with insults about their lives), that Violet is "in rare form today" betrays so much weary resignation that you can feel the weight of hundreds of similar episodes in the way he phrases every word. His wife Mattie Fae, Violet's sister, played by Margo Martindale (a wonderful character actress from Million Dollar Baby among other films) is a slightly-less merciless version of Violet herself, tempered only by her own share of secrets. A sequence late in the film when she is forced to reveal indiscretions and regrets from ages ago strikes a deep chord, as she explains that she knows that everyone else sees her as "the fat aunt", when in reality she was once much more. Juliette Lewis and Julianne Nicholson play the younger sisters of Barbara, the former an airheaded bimbo from Florida who shows up with "this year's man" (a wonderfully sleazy turn by Jobs' Dermot Mulroney), the latter the long-suffering middle daughter, who remained behind in Oklahoma when everyone else left, and who now wishes to run away with her first cousin. Both women are excellent, revealing without a word the various coping strategies they have employed to simply survive the toxic environment they alternately fled from or stayed within. All through the film, this excellent cast spars, snaps, confesses, and cries to one another, as the terrible truths that underlie their lives are all dragged into the forefront, breaking some, embittering others, and leaving still others broken ruins screaming at the storm.

Things Havoc disliked:  The one glaring exception to the excellence of the cast is, sadly, Benedict Cumberbatch, playing the aforementioned first cousin that Julianne Nicholson intends to run away with. I love Cumberbatch, especially with all the work he did last year, but his character this time around is all wrong, a simpering wimp and perennial loser emasculated by his harping mother and psychotic aunt. With a different performance, this might have worked, as the environment is certainly hostile enough to crush someone's spirit, but Cumberbatch plays the character not beaten-down, but simply dopey, and that doesn't work at all. Rather than bearing witness to the travails that he is put through, or given insight into how he became so spineless, we get as frustrated with him as his mother does, undercutting rather than underscoring the overall dysfunction of the film.

But that ultimately leads to a larger problem. The film is about dysfunction, and nothing else. The characters are broken-souled figures of tragedy and pain, slicing one another to the bone as a way of deflecting their own disappointments. Their arguments and fights, justified as many of them are at given moments, are simply preludes to more arguments and fights wherein someone entirely different will act unreasonably or unforgivably cruel towards their fellows. Such revelations as inevitably come about over the course of the movie are merely excuses for more punishment, as characters curse one another, fight, or speed off into the sunset, never to return. We understand why, certainly, but the sheer bulk of the spite in this movie gets burdensome, to the point where despite all the wonderful acting by wonderful actors, all you want the movie to do is just end. I'm not insisting that every film must have a happy ending, nor unaware of the dramatic possibilities of pain and bitterness, but there must be something else to support the audience's attention, else they, like the characters in the movie, will begin to have the inescapable urge to jump into their cars and drive as far away as possible. Indeed, the movie is so relentless that when it was finally over, someone proposed that we should now watch something uplifting to balance out the negativity of this film. Their suggestion was a Holocaust documentary.

Final thoughts:   It's somewhat churlish to complain that great actors are performing fantastic acting in a dramatic plot, but frankly, that's just what I come down to. August: Osage County is not a bad film, but it is an exceedingly unpleasant one, filled with characters we dislike doing bad things to one another for the purposes of inflicting pain. Everything is executed well, but the end to which it is all put is one that I can't help but question, and given that I'm presenting these reviews as I see the film, I cannot wax eloquently about this movie's overall quality the way its acting might seem to deserve. 12 Years a Slave, a film that was also filled with evil, and in many ways harder to watch, was a mesmerizing movie, filled with lively, complex characters, interacting with one another in a way that felt extremely real, despite all the horrors to which they subjected one another. August, by contrast, is a film that begins and ends where it is seemingly fated to end, and which leaves us with nothing but suffering and spite, unleavened by illuminations into the human condition.

The movie does its job well, but one can question if it's a job that needed doing at all.

Final Score:  6.5/10

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