August: Osage County
The great advantage of expecting not to enjoy a film is that when it proves to be better than you anticipated, it is a pleasure to be surprised; which is the case with this film adaptation of a successful stage play by Tracy Letts.
True, this is a good ol’ American family psychodrama in which everyone Acts their cotton socks off, but there’s a place in the world for that kind of film, and this is a particularly fruity version.
Violet (Meryl Streep) is a pill-addicted potty-mouthed mean motherfucker of a matriarch. Her husband Beverley (Sam Shephard) has gone missing and shortly after turns up dead. And so the family reassembles. Barbara (Julia Roberts) comes with soon to be ex-husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) and stroppy teenage daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin); another arrival is her sister Karen (Juliette Lewis) an empty-headed doofus with a smarmy fiance in tow (Dermot Mulroney); the third sister Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) has never left, which is the cause of a certain amount of bitterness. The final pieces fall into place when Violet’s sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale) comes over, with husband Charlie (Chris Cooper) and slightly dim son Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch). There’s also a Native American housekeeper who observes the whole menagerie with wary bafflement.
Beverley’s death is a catalyst for the explosion of bile and rancour, but Violet has obviously been a major pain for years, and matters are not helped by her having mouth cancer. Barbara and Bill are barely on speaking terms, Ivy has a guilty secret and Charlie is pissed off that his wife is so mean to their son. Cue a lot of showdowns, emotional explosions, shocking revelations and general bad behaviour. It sounds awful, but there’s an underlying sense of humour that makes it all surprisingly enjoyable.
And of course there’s the cast. All too often, when a film is crammed with star names, it’s a case of more is less, but with Meryl on fine feral form (I’d give her the Oscar, not Cate Blanchett), and Julia Roberts matching her blow for blow (she’s getting better and better with age), plus Chris Cooper offering much-needed humanity and generosity of spirit, and all the others pulling their weight, it’s two hours of cathartic pleasure.
Yes, the title is dreadful, and the ending is lame, and sure, there are far too many moments of crisis, but in a world where women get all too few decent roles in movies, it’s a real treat to see a whole film given over to relationships and dynamics between competing alpha females, with not a gunfight or car chase in sight.
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