I prefer my big, emotional melodramas to be as loud, boisterous, misanthropic, and go-for-broke as possible. That might explain why I have a more particular fondness for the Tracy Letts penned, Oklahoma set dysfunctional family dramedy August: Osage County than many of my decidedly not as enthralled film critic brethren. It’s a purposefully constructed movie expressly made to come across as an artificial stage play. It’s an often hilarious and thrilling kind of inside joke being delivered by a top notch cast, one of the best writers working today, and sadly by a director that I’m not sure entirely understands the joke. The fact that the title of the film and play it’s based on comes directly from stage direction should be all the clue the audience needs to figure out the tone. It’s purposefully batshit in the best possible ways.
Several generations of the Westons have descended on the old family home following the disappearance and suicide of their main paternal figure. The wife of the deceased, Violet Weston (Meryl Streep), is a drug abusing, cancer ridden mess that seems held together only by her open disgust for everyone around her. Her eldest daughter (Julia Roberts) resents the shit out of her, is raising a daughter (Abigail Breslin) who could care less about everything, and has to attend the funeral with her mawkish and intellectually weasley ex-husband (Ewan McGregor). Middle child Karen (Juliette Lewis) is dating a hilariously douchy and lecherous bro (Dermot Mulroney) in the throes of a severe mid-life crisis. Youngest daughter Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) deals with the pain of staying close to home and dealing with her hateful mom by sleeping with her cousin Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch) on the side. Little Charles is the son of Violet’s considerably more level headed sister (Margo Martindale), but he’s a bit slow and awkward, so she hates him while her laidback pothead husband (Chris Cooper) constantly has to defend his own son’s existence as a human being.
To some degree they’re all terrible, horrible, no good, very bad people with only a handful of redeemable qualities between them. This kind of story has become Letts’ stock-in-trade, following his Pulitzer Prize win and providing the stories that would become the underrated films Bug and Killer Joe. His wit is as corrosive as pure battery acid, which can be off putting to some, but it’s always framed in such a way that one wants to stick around to see just how far Letts is willing to take the story and his characters. While this is the most “genteel” story of his to be adapted for the big screen (by the scribe himself), there’s certainly a point leading into the final third where Letts firmly places his authorial stamp down and lets his freak flag fly. It will probably confound those who dismiss the film as an atonal comedic mess, but anyone who appreciates good stagecraft delivered by people willing to go the extra mile to seem like assholes should have a blast with this material.
But it’s a huge credit to Letts and the cast that the film ends up being as exceptional as it is because director John Wells (The Company Men) and the film’s producers seem to be acting under the misapprehension that they’ve created a piece of cannily crafted awards bait. He really hasn’t, and while the cast and the writing could both very easily gain some sort of recognition next week when the Oscar nominees are announced, Wells brings the only detrimental argument against the film: that it does feel too much like a stage play. The material is ambitious and the cast has clearly been lined up to try and gain the largest amount of notoriety possible, but Wells can only stage static sequences and just let the camera roll on them. He brings very little to the table, and literally so in the film’s giant set-piece dinner scene with all the actors airing their grievances at one another across ten minutes. In the hands of someone like William Friedkin – the man who adapted Letts’ two previous big screen adaptations – this could have been an unstoppable beast of a film. Friedkin also wouldn’t have let even a cast with this many veterans chew him up and spit him out the way Wells gets treated here.
But in spite of Wells never figuring out a way to present the material in any way beyond simply that of a hired gun, that feeling that the inmates are gleefully running the asylum comes across wonderfully in the performances. It’s nice to see Streep let loose giant, freewheeling bursts of unrestrained profanity without a filter, but the fact that she more often gets hired to play kindly matriarchs or dignified characters allows the actress to channel years of latent aggression into a single role. Roberts doesn’t back down, either, as the daughter who wants nothing to do with Violet but is slowly and unknowingly becoming her. It’s her best performance in a very long time. Mulroney and Martindale steal scenes when they can, with the former at one point actually being told to take off from a scene because the film can’t take any more craziness. Nicholson and Cooper bring considerable amounts of class to a largely classless family. The only weak link in the cast is an out of his element Cumberbatch who can’t bring anything else to the Little Charles character other than stammering and constantly looking at his shoes.
August: Osage County isn’t the serious film it was probably meant to be for the studio that made it, but as trash cinema, it’s exquisite beyond just being a guilty pleasure. Like other Letts efforts, it revels in awful behaviour with consequences that will never once teach a lesson to any of the people involved. It probably would work better on the stage with this same cast, but just the fact that they all show up in the same place at the same time for a film this gleefully snarky and sarcastic should be cause for celebration enough… provided that you’re on the same wavelength as Letts.