Expectations can be a bitch or a nice surprise when you’re out of synch with the conventional wisdom. Reviews out of the Toronto International Film Festival (including ours) might have led some to believe (myself included) that “August: Osage County” is shrill, pitched up to one volume and disjointed. While it’s unclear if it’s been through an editing process in the three months since the September festival circuit, the “August: Osage County” I saw last night was unexpectedly funny. This is pure Tracy Letts (the playwright who won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama for ‘August’ onstage in 2008). A corrosive and toxic look at family, “August: Osage County” is unrelentingly dark, but it’s also a black comedy with the most delicious of evil barbs. Family is a four letter word? Hell, yes.
The cast is heavyweight. Anchored by Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts, the film also stars Julianne Nicholson, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Margo Martindale, Benedict Cumberbatch, Juliette Lewis, Sam Shepard, Dermot Mulroney, Abigail Breslin and Misty Upham and everyone’s bringing their A-game. To hear it from the cast, much of this was due to Streep, who steered the tone and insisted to director John Wells (“The Company Men”) that the entire cast live together sequestered in Oklahoma to get a better sense of behaving like a family (she got her way).
But she initially was hesitant to take the role of Violet Weston, the pill-addicted matriarch of the Weston family who rains down a torrent of abuse and noxious digs on her various family members. “I didn’t look to this with appetite,” she said about the difficult role last night in New York during a 45-minute Q&A with most of the cast (you can watch the conversation in its entirety below). “I know it’s funny, but to [play the role] you have to sort of enter the house of pain.” Not one to take on a role superficially, Streep rattled off the difficulties of the character: enduring chemotherapy, gone bald, mouth cancer, pain, pain pills, the cycle of addiction. “It’s a state of paranoia that I guess comes easily to actors, but… it was not an easy thing to say yes to.”
The movie’s centerpiece is a dinner scene that is perhaps the quintessence of family dysfunction, loaded with bile, wrath, revulsion and even wicked humor. And it’s all lead by the maestro Meryl Streep. “I’d never seen anything like THAT,” Dermot Mulroney said of Streep in the scene. “So in each take Meryl would be perfect. You’d see her throw out variety…but what I noticed is that when she’d make some a change or a tonal shift for a particular take it would ripple down the table and back and before I know it we’re all playing a slightly different scene, because we’re going off what she’s putting on the table.”
Which brings us to the ending (*spoilers* for those that haven’t seen the movie, this is for fans of the play). The movie concludes in a controversial fashion, at least to the play's ardent supporters (and there are many). In the original play, Viola is left on her porch, abandoned by her family for her malice. She’s essentially left to rot by herself after betraying each, one by one. But the movie ends with Julia Roberts' character driving away from her mom, stopping by the side of the road for a brief minute to ponder life, and then head out on the highway again down to Colorado to find her estranged husband and daughter (McGregor and Breslin). It’s a much more hopeful ending than the play and it outraged fans when it played in that form in September.
Evidently Wells had admitted that this “upbeat” ending was forced onto him by Harvey Weinstein after test screenings. "I'm not sure I’m OK with doing it that way," he said in September. "I don't want to say there's anything wrong with the current ending, because there isn't. But it's something we’re still talking about. We don’t open for three months, and it’s possible you’ll see something different."
Well, we can confirm from last night’s screening the ending from September is the same and considering the movie opens on Christmas Day, if they were going to make those "downbeat" changes they probably would have made them by now ("August: Osage County" is screening all over the place as well for press, SAG, guilds, etc.). It admittedly is a tepid ending that does mar the film somewhat, regardless of the original, but at this point, that's likely not going to change. New photos from the film have arrived, plus below, you can watch the aforementioned Q&A from last night in New York, plus a recent Los Angeles Q&A with producer George Clooney. “August: Osage County” opens up wide on December 25th.