Toronto 2013: 'August: Osage County' is a feisty revel in family darkness

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When a movie is based on a celebrated Broadway play, the first question you want to ask is pretty basic: Does it play? In the case of August: Osage County, an adaptation of Tracy Letts’ 2007 Pulitizer Prize-winning stage drama about a feisty Oklahoma family marinating in its own miserablism, the answer is a resounding yes. The fights and insults and sadistic parent-child mind games, the disease and addiction, the decades’ worth of gnarled domestic resentments, the powerhouse acting that sometimes shades into overacting (though in this case I’ll be damned if you could the draw the line)…the movie is red meat for anyone who thrives on confrontation and a certain brand of punchy, in-your-face emotional shock value. Yet the pull of what was happening on screen came, for me, with a major qualification: I went with it, I often enjoyed it, but I didn’t entirely buy it. As a play, August: Osage County might have been designed to make every last person who sees it think: “Thank God for my family! Looking at these raging Middle American crazies, I never realized how much I had to be grateful for!” Which is to say: The film, directed with head-on prosaic craft by John Wells (who made the very sharp downsizing drama The Company Men), is an extremely canny theatrical contraption that spreads its darkness like whipped butter on a roll. Is it a good movie? Let’s call it the feel-good feel-bad domestic snake-pit melodrama of the year.

It’s also another Meryl Streep tour de force, and I say that knowing that there can be a certain automatic-pilot quality to writing that Meryl Streep has given another virtuoso performance that’s destined to be a player at awards time. But there’s simply no denying the brilliant, hostile force with which she tears, like a caged animal, into the role of Violet Weston, a great-plains Southern matriarch who specializes in tormenting everyone around her. Violet, a pill-popping wretch, has a long-suffering alcoholic literary husband, Beverly (Sam Shepard), and three grown daughters, all of whom show up at her musty old house, with its browning paper taped over the windows, after Beverly disappears (he has presumably gone off on a bender). It is soon revealed — this is not a spoiler, it’s really the whole set-up for the action — that Beverly has died, presumably by his own hand. This leaves Violet to sit around with her sister, Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale), and those daughters and their assorted men — a soon-to-be-ex-husband, a slickster fiancé, a clandestine boyfriend — and to launch into the kind of cut-to-the-quick recrimination that she thrives on.

Violet, who uses words like weapons, is suffering from mouth cancer (which is, on some level, both a metaphor and a punchline), and to blunt the effects of her chemotherapy, she has gotten dozens of prescriptions to pharmaceutical drugs, and she takes so many of them that one can’t even begin to say where the medicine leaves off and the self-medicating begins. She’s a deeply diseased woman living in a druggy haze, and Streep, letting herself look ravaged, with cropped gray thinning hair (for most of the movie, but not all of it, Violet wears a wig), plays her as a monster “truth teller” who has been so unhinged by the drugs she’s on that whatever last restraints she might have had have now fallen away.

This means that the talons are out for Barbara (Julia Roberts), her oldest and strongest daughter, who arrives with her own 14-year-old daughter (Abigail Breslin) and the unfaithful husband (Ewan McGregor) she’s in the middle of separating from. Barbara tries to push back with decency against Violet’s destructiveness, but really, she’s a chip off the old block — the lust to fight, and to fight dirty, is in her blood. Roberts has never given a performance driven by this kind of neurotic rage, and damned if she doesn’t nail it; she’s luminous and forceful. The other two daughters are wallflowers by comparison: Karen (Juliette Lewis), a flake engaged to a man (Dermot Mulroney) who is obviously just using her, and sweet, freckled, loyal Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), who is in the middle of a secret idyllic romance…though mark my words, in this movie nothing is allowed to stay innocent for long.

The centerpiece of the play, and of the movie, is an extended dinner-table scene that Violet, enjoying the opportunity to vent, escalates from anger to viciousness to all-out war. As dialogue, as pure verbal machine-gun theater, it’s a marvelously sustained and virtuoso piece of writing, yet the more that Violet kept ragging on the people around her, and the more that they just sat there, not really defending themselves or doing anything else, and not just walking out (they couldn’t do that, because then there wouldn’t be a scene), the more I felt as if I was watching a meticulously staged catharsis. Violet is a potent character, but she’s also a powerfully derivative assemblage of previous characters: She’s the drug-addict matriarch from Long Day’s Journey Into Night meets the mother-as-destroyer from The Glass Menagerie meets the violently addicted truth-teller from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? meets Mommie Dearest. As for that spilled-guts dinner battle, it’s riveting, yet so over-the-top that the scene it kept making me think of — I’m not remotely kidding — is the cannibal-family dinner-table scene from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. It makes that scene look light.

So how good a movie, in the final analysis, is August: Osage County? That’s a very tough critical call to make. I give credit to anything that plays, and the movie’s acting is almost uniformly superb (though Ewan McGregor is way too decorous for these people; he seems to have dropped in from another planet). Will it be an awards film? In all likelihood. Yet on stage, where it was three-and-a-half hours long, August: Osage County may have had a more perfect home for its orgy of sprawling but hermetic dysfunction. On screen, it’s closer to Steel Magnolias staged with Venus flytraps. The dark revelations pile up in this movie with a little too much clockwork relentlessness. It’s engineered to get a rise out of us, and it does, but the definition of catharsis is that it leaves you feeling cleansed, and August: Osage County left me feeling more like I’d been given the emotional equivalent of a high colonic.

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