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Holiday Movies: “August: Osage County”

Holiday Movies: “August: Osage County”
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“They f**k you up, your mum and dad. They don’t mean to, but they do”. So says British poet Philip Larkin in brutal candor. And he might have been talking about the parents in “August: Osage County”.

With an all-star, Oscar bait cast, this viciously dark, dysfunctional family drama comes via a Pulitzer prize winning play. Author Tracy Letts (also a good actor currently on “Homeland”!) has adapted his own work for the screen. With two of his previous works “Bug” and “Killer Joe” transitioning well to the cinema, this one seems primed for box office glory. Only it may just be a bit too darkly acerbic for mainstream audiences. Director John Wells (TV’s “ER” and “The Company Men”) makes an effort to open things up, showing us rural Oklahoma where the Weston Srs. live in a large, Walton-esque home that is just inviting a fractious family gathering. There’s still a stage-y feel to the proceedings, which isn’t a bad thing, especially as it’s the juicy dialogue that provides the bulk of the tastiness to be relished.

Sam Shepard plays Bev Weston, a celebrated poet and alcoholic. His wife Violet is the antithesis of the gentle flower that her name suggests. She’s a pill-popping, bitter, highly verbal matriarch who enjoys torturing others with her non-stop stream of invective. She has two speeds; mean and meaner.

When Bev goes missing (after a superb opening scene, Shepard’s only one), Violet summons her daughters to console and then grieve together. As in “Hannah and her Sisters”, the three daughters fill distinct roles. Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) is the dutiful one who stuck around and still cares for her mother. Barbara (Julia Roberts) is the outwardly “normal” one (spouse, child) but on closer inspection is dealing with an unfaithful husband (Ewan Mcgregor) and a petulant teenager (Abigail Breslin). The third daughter is Karen (Juliette Lewis), a flighty dingbat who believes she has found her soul-mate in the smarmy boyfriend she brings home (Dermot Mulroney).

Also joining in the tinderbox of a reunion is Bev’s brother-in-law Charlie (Chris Cooper), his meddling wife Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale) and their meek son “Little Charles” (Benedict Cumberbatch).

It soon becomes clear that there are many secrets and tensions simmering beneath the surface and Letts’ dialogue sizzles and explodes with the well-paced rhythm of a stage play. If some of the revelations aren’t quite as shocking as they should be, it is only perhaps due to the plethora of dysfunctional family dramas that we see these days. My gosh, it’s a genre that even has its own name!

But no one can deny the absolute delight of watching Meryl Streep who relishes every syllable of her ranting and raving. Yes, it’s an over the top performance that risks verging into camp, but she rips into it with such gleeful joy! She’s like the evil queen from Snow White mixed with Mommie Dearest. Who could resist it?  I was surprised to see Julia Roberts hold her own against La Streep; she shows a range of emotion that is new for her playing someone who lives in fear of becoming the one woman she loves to hate.

It’s a superb cast that really can’t be faulted and if some of the players slip into fuzziness, that’s probably due to the amount of story squashed into 2 hours. The stage-play (which I didn’t see) ran 3 hours and I’m sure was richer and more resonant.

Larkin’s poem ends “Man hands on misery to man”. Not much fun for the family in question….but it sure makes for entertaining cinema!

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