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TIFF Review: 'August: Osage County' Starring Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts & More

Reviews
by Kevin Jagernauth
September 9, 2013 10:43 PM
67 Comments
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August: Osage County, skip

It's undeniable that, at least on paper, "August: Osage County" looks like a can't-miss proposition. Pairing Tracey Letts' Pulitizer Prize and Tony Award-winning play with an outstanding ensemble cast ranging from awards-nominated veterans to rising young stars—Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Abigail Breslin, Benedict Cumberbatch, Juliette Lewis, Margo Martindale, Dermot Mulroney, Julianne Nicholson, Sam Shepard, Misty Upham—it's hard to fathom the material not working. And while the choice of helmer John Wells ("The Company Men") might not seem like the most inspired decision, all he theoretically has to do is put the camera on a tripod and let the actors do their thing. And he does. And yet, 'Osage County' still turns out be an exhausting, screechy drama, in which a lot of very good actors work very hard, and yet produce so little as a result.

August Osage County

Following the death of family patriarch and celebrated poet Beverly Weston (Shepard, in an appearance that's just slightly more than a cameo), the entire brood returns to the titular home to rally around their mother Violet (Streep), a cancer-battling, pill-popping woman. Arriving from near and far are Violet's daughters Barbara, Karen and Ivy (Roberts, Lewis and Nicholson); her sister Mattie Fae (Martindale), her husband Charles (Cooper) and their son "Little" Charles (Cumberbatch); as well as Barbara's estranged husband Bill (McGregor) and their daughter Jean (Breslin) and Karen's new fiancé Steve (Mulroney). And as major family events like births, marriages and funerals tend to unveil, there's a lot history to discuss, catch up with and reconcile, and over the next few weeks it will all come out in mostly painful and harsh showdowns.

Violet in particular seems to have an unending reserve of bitter, acidic observations and opinions to rain down on everyone she knows, and she doesn't waste much time in getting down to business. At a family dinner after Beverly's funeral is when the gloves first come off, in an extended scene where nearly everyone has a sharp spear of insult or indignation hurled straight at them. The Westons are hardly the Waltons, and it soon becomes clear that is just the tip of an iceberg of meanness and cruelty. The dinner is just the first layer of an onion of secrets, regrets, revelations and accusations that are yet to come, and while we have no doubt Letts' original material won awards and critical acclaim for good reason, the translation to the big screen leaves much to be desired.

While seeing this on stage in a series of clearly defined acts likely gives the the story a different shape, presented similarly as a film, it leaves the pacing feeling particularly slack. Letts' work contains frequent verbal bouts, and showdowns between various characters, but the staginess of the movie—particular in scenes that get stuck in one room for minutes upon minutes on end with different people shouting at each other—can be tiring, and certainly visually lifeless. Granted, we're not watching 'Osage' for camera movements and slick sequences, and though the screenplay by Letts' himself does open things up slightly, it doesn't do enough inside the Weston home to knock down some walls have give both these characters and the audience room to breathe.

August: Osage County' Starring Meryl Streep
"August: Osage County" Available for Pre-Buy in iTunes

And sure, one could justify that choice as a metaphorical one, emphasizing the claustrophobia of the entire situation, but this a film that requires performances to carry what the isn't in the (endless) scenes of dense dialogue. But sadly, for most of the cast, yelling every line loudly is confused with conveying emotion, sarcasm and/or depth, with several zingers completely missing the mark because any shaping of the lines is erased by sheer volume. "August: Osage County" is a film of big, wild gestures, plate smashing, screaming and tears, but not nuance, and it all has the effect of leaving one deadened, not moved. None of these characters are sympathetic, nor should they be, but we aren't given a reason to personally invest, relate or even understand the depth of betrayals and bad behavior that has stacked up over the years. These are clearly people who don't like being together, but yet the movie doesn't give the audience a reason to want to be with them either.

But there are some saving grace notes throughout. Streep is at her Streep-iest, given a wig to wear, and allowed to look ugly, and she takes to sneering, emotionally volatile Violet with ease. She commands the screen and many scenes like she should, but has a great foil in Roberts playing Barbara. As the eldest daughter, who has to come to grips with her family history, as well as take the unwanted role of Weston matriarch, Roberts hasn't been this good in a while, and that's likely due to a role that gives her a lot of substance to play with. And a special nod of recognition has to go to Cooper as Charles, who delivers one of the film's few genuine moments, with a wonderful, poignant rebuke of his wife Mattie that lays bare the ugliness at the core of the Westons.

As directed by Wells, he seems to have been almost too hands-off when it comes to his heavyweight cast. There is little in the way of craftmanship here—even the usually-reliable composer Gustavo Santalalla provides a rather workmanlike score—and the film could've used a stronger hand in guiding the transition of the play to the big screen. There is a powerful cinematic experience somewhere in "August: Osage County" waiting to get out in the sprawling two hour plus runtime, but in seemingly staying too faithful to Letts' work, the end product winds up playing almost like a supercut of Important Acting In Big Scenes, instead of a cohesive work of dramatic weight and thematic thoughtfulness. [C-]

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67 Comments

  • ThisMovieSucks | June 3, 2014 12:04 AMReply

    I can't imagine WHO can relate to this crap. I sure as hell can't. It's kinda' effed up if Hollyweird is trying to sell this as a "typical" midwestern family. My family are all from the midwest, and NONE of us know ANYONE remotely like this gang of losers. It's disgusting to think that anyone would perceive this movie as the "norm" for a family--in the midwest or anyone else. I know of no one in my family, circle of friends or aquaintences, who behave like this.

  • ThisMovieSucks | June 2, 2014 10:43 PMReply

    Pure SHIT. I am SO glad Streep didn't win ANOTHER Oscar for one more overrated role. This is one of THE most depressing, pointless pieces of crap I've ever wasted 2 hours of my life on. It's supposedly billed as a "black comedy"---ther was NOTHING funny about it. VERY misleading trailers. I ended up being totally depressed by the end of it.

  • ThisMovieSucks | June 2, 2014 10:43 PMReply

    Pure SHIT. I am SO glad Streep didn't win ANOTHER Oscar for one more overrated role. This is one of THE most depressing, pointless pieces of crap I've ever wasted 2 hours of my life on. It's supposedly billed as a "black comedy"---ther was NOTHING funny about it. VERY misleading trailers. I ended up being totally depressed by the end of it.

  • ThisMovieSucks | June 2, 2014 10:43 PMReply

    Pure SHIT. I am SO glad Streep didn't win ANOTHER Oscar for one more overrated role. This is one of THE most depressing, pointless pieces of crap I've ever wasted 2 hours of my life on. It's supposedly billed as a "black comedy"---ther was NOTHING funny about it. VERY misleading trailers. I ended up being totally depressed by the end of it.

  • Dean | May 2, 2014 1:38 AMReply

    August is Osage county is so shitty. I felt like slitting my wrists. Julia Roberts foul mouth made me sick and I refuse to watch her films because I can't stand her or that big vein popping out of her forehead. Why did I see this depressing shit of movie? Sucks ass & I want 2 hours of my life back too!

  • Dean | May 2, 2014 1:38 AMReply

    August is Osage county is so shitty. I felt like slitting my wrists. Julia Roberts foul mouth made me sick and I refuse to watch her films because I can't stand her or that big vein popping out of her forehead. Why did I see this depressing shit of movie? Sucks ass & I want 2 hours of my life back too!

  • Dean | May 2, 2014 1:37 AMReply

    August is Osage county is so shitty. I felt like slitting my wrists. Julia Roberts foul mouth made me sick and I refuse to watch her films because I can't stand her or that big vein popping out of her forehead. Why did I see this depressing shit of movie?

  • Dean | May 2, 2014 1:37 AMReply

    August is Osage county is so shitty. I felt like slitting my wrists. Julia Roberts foul mouth made me sick and I refuse to watch her films because I can't stand her or that big vein popping out of her forehead. Why did I see this depressing shit of movie?

  • Dean | May 2, 2014 1:37 AMReply

    August is Osage county is so shitty. I felt like slitting my wrists. Julia Roberts foul mouth made me sick and I refuse to watch her films because I can't stand her or that big vein popping out of her forehead. Why did I see this depressing shit of movie?

  • Dean | May 2, 2014 1:37 AMReply

    August is Osage county is so shitty. I felt like slitting my wrists. Julia Roberts foul mouth made me sick and I refuse to watch her films because I can't stand her or that big vein popping out of her forehead. Why did I see this depressing shit of movie?

  • Dean | May 2, 2014 1:36 AMReply

    August is Osage county is so shitty. I felt like slitting my wrists. Julia Roberts foul mouth made me sick and I refuse to watch her films because I can't stand her or that big vein popping out of her forehead. Why did I see this depressing shit of movie?

  • az | March 4, 2014 1:42 PMReply

    LOL, now I get it!

  • az | March 4, 2014 1:41 PMReply

    Wow, amazing. Can you expand? Haven't seen it yet so curious. Just once will do.

  • az | March 4, 2014 1:40 PMReply

    Wow, amazing. Can you expand? Haven't seen it yet so curious. Just once will do.

  • az | March 4, 2014 1:40 PMReply

    Wow, amazing. Can you expand? Haven't seen it yet so curious. Just once will do.

  • az | March 4, 2014 1:40 PMReply

    Wow, amazing. Can you expand? Haven't seen it yet so curious. Just once will do.

  • az | March 4, 2014 1:40 PMReply

    Wow, amazing. Can you expand? Haven't seen it yet so curious. Just once will do.

  • az | March 4, 2014 1:40 PMReply

    Wow, amazing. Can you expand? Haven't seen it yet so curious. Just once will do.

  • az | March 4, 2014 1:40 PMReply

    Wow, amazing. Can you expand? Haven't seen it yet so curious. Just once will do.

  • Sh*tface | March 4, 2014 1:38 PMReply

    Hey Don, did you get your f*cking point across? sh*thead

  • Sh*tface | March 4, 2014 1:37 PMReply

    Hey Don, did you get your f%cking point across? sh*thead

  • sh*thead | March 4, 2014 1:37 PMReply

    Hey Don, did you get your f%cking point across? sh*thead

  • shithead | March 4, 2014 1:37 PMReply

    Hey Don, did you get your f%cking point across? sh*thead

  • shithead | March 4, 2014 1:37 PMReply

    Hey Don, did you get your f%cking point across? sh*thead

  • Don Droga | March 4, 2014 1:31 PMReply

    Wretched movie! UGH! I want the two hours of my life back. This movie sucked!

  • Don Droga | March 4, 2014 1:31 PMReply

    Wretched movie! UGH! I want the two hours of my life back. This movie sucked!

  • Don Droga | March 4, 2014 1:31 PMReply

    Wretched movie! UGH! I want the two hours of my life back. This movie sucked!

  • Don Droga | March 4, 2014 1:31 PMReply

    Wretched movie! UGH! I want the two hours of my life back. This movie sucked!

  • Don Droga | March 4, 2014 1:31 PMReply

    Wretched movie!

  • Don Droga | March 4, 2014 1:30 PMReply

    Wretched movie!

  • Don Droga | March 4, 2014 1:30 PMReply

    Wretched movie!

  • Don Droga | March 4, 2014 1:30 PMReply

    Wretched movie!

  • Don Droga | March 4, 2014 1:30 PMReply

    Wretched movie!

  • Don Droga | March 4, 2014 1:30 PMReply

    Wretched movie!

  • Andrew | February 8, 2014 8:07 PMReply

    This movie goes to show that money and a great cast cant buy you entertainment.
    The marketing and pre peaks really had me. I thought this movie was going to be the moviie to see for the year. I was sadly mistaken. It struck a nerve. I wasted my day for a cheap badly wrtten piece of crap. I wonder what the seasoned actors in this movie think about the dung they stared in.

  • nancy Gee | January 11, 2014 1:16 AMReply

    UGH! I want the two hours of my life back. This movie sucked!

  • Don Droga | March 4, 2014 1:31 PM

    Wretched movie!

  • Don Droga | March 4, 2014 1:31 PM

    Wretched movie!

  • nancy Gee | January 11, 2014 1:16 AMReply

    UGH! I want the two hours of my life back. This movie sucked!

  • nancy Gee | January 11, 2014 1:16 AMReply

    UGH! I want the two hours of my life back. This movie sucked!

  • nancy Gee | January 11, 2014 1:15 AMReply

    UGH! I want the two hours of my life back. This movie sucked!

  • nancy Gee | January 11, 2014 1:15 AMReply

    UGH! I want the two hours of my life back. This movie sucked!

  • nancy Gee | January 11, 2014 1:15 AMReply

    UGH! I want the two hours of my life back. This movie sucked!

  • nancy Gee | January 11, 2014 1:15 AMReply

    UGH! I want the two hours of my life back. This movie sucked!

  • nancy Gee | January 11, 2014 1:15 AMReply

    UGH! I want the two hours of my life back. This movie sucked!

  • nancy Gee | January 11, 2014 1:15 AMReply

    UGH! I want the two hours of my life back. This movie sucked!

  • nancy Gee | January 11, 2014 1:15 AMReply

    UGH! I want the two hours of my life back. This movie sucked!

  • nancy Gee | January 11, 2014 1:15 AMReply

    UGH! I want the two hours of my life back. This movie sucked!

  • Joel V | September 11, 2013 6:51 PMReply

    Too bad Mike Nichols, Mike Leigh, or John Cameron Mitchell weren't attached to this.

  • E | September 10, 2013 8:17 PMReply

    Really disappointing film, mostly knowing the play..
    Meryl Streep is always great, but its just not enough. I agree with the review.

  • Britt | September 10, 2013 3:13 PMReply

    I'm not surprised this didn't come together to match expectations. The expectations were too high and there's just so many cast member all trying to attention.

  • fred | September 10, 2013 10:26 AMReply

    John Wells is not cut out for directing film. I saw The Company Men in a packed house at a festival with several cast and crew present. Total dud.

    He has no vision. No capacity to identify problems, so how can he hope to address them?

    I'm not much of theater person but i saw this on Broadway with the original cast and was blown away. Phenomenal. Letts' father was still alive and played the patriarch.

    This reviewer strikes me as astute, but he doesn't realize that the impulse to just put the camera on a tripod and let the stellar players do their thing is probably not going to work. You need to innovate. You need to build a set and get some theater actors and figure out how to place cameras all over the place and how to cut down some of the text and use visual moments to substitute for dialog in a way that isn't possible in theater.

  • adorian | September 10, 2013 7:16 AMReply

    It's like those skits on the Carol Burnett Show, where Eunice and Mama yelled at each other with hick accents...except those skits were short and funny.

  • James | September 10, 2013 4:20 AMReply

    Cooper is brilliant in everything.

    Oh, and so is Marion Cotillard.

  • AB | September 10, 2013 3:16 AMReply

    I saw this in a preview screening and thought it was a heart-wrenchingly honest and accurate portrayal of family dynamics- particularly in the mid-west, though I am sure most can relate. I have kept thinking about it nearly every day since and I thought the performances were brilliant. I would recommend seeing it before judging it. Or not. You're choice. Just my two cents.

  • Piotr | September 10, 2013 1:52 AMReply

    "but yet"

  • blake | September 10, 2013 1:30 AMReply

    Too bad i saw the play with Estelle Parsons and it blew me away. Oh well.

  • Joel V | September 11, 2013 6:10 PM

    I know Streep was the obvious choice for the lead, but still would've loved to see Parsons, or the Tony-nominated Deanna Dunagan reprise the role for the screen.

  • JD | September 10, 2013 1:23 AMReply

    This review i right on the money. This movie is borderline incompetent -- and I loved the play.

  • a.p | September 10, 2013 1:01 AMReply

    C+...Ouch.

  • a.p | September 10, 2013 1:02 AM

    lol, it's actually C-. Even worse.

  • SHEYLA | September 10, 2013 12:31 AMReply

    It's the MOMENT to Weinstein co. realises The Immigrant, a wonderful with a move performance of Marion Cotillard, she is magnificent in the film and must be Oscar Best Actress nod.

  • SHEYLA | September 10, 2013 10:25 AM

    WAYLON are you wrong now, because her performance in The Immigrant has been highly acclaimed by critics, even who didn't like the entire film gave Marion great reviews. She is superb in the film she should get to Oscar

  • Waylon | September 10, 2013 1:31 AM

    Cottillard has only given bad performances in her English language films.

  • Dear "sheyla" | September 10, 2013 1:03 AM

    just stop already.

  • Reynaud | September 9, 2013 10:54 PMReply

    Am I a bad person if i'm happy that it sucks?

  • Bella | September 9, 2013 11:28 PM

    Yeah, me too. I just can't stand Julia Roberts. I guess I would like it without her even if it sucks.

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