Dec 28, 2013

August: Osage County

This movie is destroyed by Meryl Streep. She is such an outrageous ham in it, she seems to have blown in from another galaxy. She creates an enormous imbalance between her character, a thorny, pill-popping Oklahoma matriarch, and the rest of her family. It ain't her fault. She should not be playing this role. Nothing about her looks, feels or sounds like a woman from the plains. It really is a pity that La Streep does not contain her most histrionic impulses. Where one gesture would suffice, she employs 38. Even with all that hamming, she is nothing less than ferocious and very much alive, but this is probably one of the worst performances of her career.
The only woman who steals the show is the great Margo Martindale. Everybody else looks like they'd rather be somewhere else, with a director in firmer control of his leading lady.
I saw the play on Broadway, and while entertaining, it was not grand material enough for the stage. It felt like an unusually prickly sitcom, something that could be a satisfying HBO movie. Hence, as a film it works better. Tracy Letts writes acerbic dialogue (perhaps too talky for the screen) and it is fun to sit in on a monstrously dysfunctional, although not very believable, family played by a cast of thousands which barely knows what to do. Julia Roberts, who plays the oldest daughter, employs mostly one scowl the entire film. She has good moments, but she seems pinched. I always feel like sending her a vibrator; something to loosen her up. What can she possibly be so uptight about?
Her sisters are played by Julianne Nicholson, who wisely goes the quiet route, and that other hambone, Juliette Lewis, who has a great opening scene but then descends into camp. The problem is that no one else follows her. Sam Shepard plays the family patriarch and his raspy, down home voice is gone too soon. Young Abigail Breslin (from Little Miss Sunshine) brings no definition to her undefined part, Ewan McGregor is wasted as some sort of college professor. But others are more fun to watch, like Dermot Mulroney, looking perfectly comfortable playing a sleazebag from Florida, and Benedict Cumberbatch, doing a good, if improbable, job as the idiot cousin.  Only the great Chris Cooper, as his dad, and Margo Martindale, as his mom, seem to be in the right movie.
Obviously this is a problem of direction (by John Wells), but I suspect, mostly of economics. With the right actors, people who actually know what it is like to come from a red state, this could be a decent, modest independent film, and provide a better illusion of authenticity, but those actors do not movie tickets sell.

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