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August: Osage County (Dec. 25)

This movie’s pedigree screams Oscar. And, boy, does it ever scream

Meryl Streep? Julia Roberts? Tony- and Pulitzer-winning play? Distribution by awards powerhouse The Weinstein Co.? This adaptation directed by John Wells (The Company Men) came with built-in consideration at Toronto.

People expected Academy Awards potential from this drama about a bitter, chaotic Oklahoma family. But the first screenings at the festival delivered mostly uncertain responses. Moviegoers were confused. You could hear the dismay among critics, voters, and general festival attendees venting their frustrations, as if they wanted to shake this movie and say: Be more Oscar-y!

This was one of those “Emperor’s New Clothes” moments. Last year, The Master got similar reactions – masses of people would gather post-screening and offer hesitant reaction … until one person would admit, “I didn’t like it.” An avalanche of relieved exasperation from the others would follow. That’s how it was after the press & industry screening I attended. At the premiere, the crowd gave a standing ovation, but most attendees I spoke to said it felt obligatory.

Where did the movie go astray? Some theories are that August: Osage County’s searing confrontations play better on stage, where the faces screeching acid at each other aren’t 30 feet tall in close-up.

Still, the Academy deeply favors Meryl Streep, and she could get Best Actress points for her pill-popping, nicotine-stained, cancer-stricken, sinister old matriarch simply because it’s such a transformative appearance. She may have been better served by a director who restrained her performance a little, but … then again Oscar voters are often more wowed by scenery-chewing than subtlety.

Other possible contenders include Roberts, who also amps up the volume as her fed-up eldest daughter, Margot Martindale (Justified, The Americans) as Streep’s blustery, belligerent sister, and Chris Cooper as Martindale’s battle-weary husband.

But the true stars of this film are Benedict Cumberbatch as awkward cousin Little Charles, and Julianne Nicholson as Streep’s kinder, more loyal daughter. When the family conflagrations begin, Nicholson and Cumberbatch are often the only ones keeping it real while their co-stars turn this into PERFORMANCES!: The Motion Picture.

The Weinstein Co. doesn’t give up, so I wouldn’t count out some kind of comeback. Lowered expectations might actually be a plus when the film starts screening for voters at large. Like its characters, August: Osage County could benefit from everyone sitting down and taking a breath.

NEXT PAGE: Dallas Buyers Club

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