We go to movies for various reasons: to escape from reality, to imagine ourselves heroes, to remind us things we should be or to help us be grateful for what we have. The acidic comedy “August: Osage County” is the kind of movie that makes you thankful that our families are not so toxic, not so thoroughly dreadful and that you are not locked up in the kind of heat that kills small birds.
Yes, if you’re snowed in, this movie may help thaw out your feelings of cabin fever unless, of course, you do have a family that is as bitterly dysfunctional as the Weston family. Then you should be booking yourself on to Dr. Phil or Jerry Springer and maybe some day your life will be more than a tawdry mess and become a melodrama worth making a movie about.
“August: Osage County” was originally a play. Written by Tracy Letts, the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning play takes place during August in Osage County, Oklahoma. This isn’t the Oklahoma of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. The hope of a brand new state that was going to be great has now been parched into a dustbowl. The county takes its name from a Native American tribe and the federally recognized Osage Nation makes its home in the county. According to the 2010 census, 66 percent of the population were white, 11.4 percent black and 14.4 percent Native American.
While December temperatures in Osage County range around the high 40s or low 50s for the high, in August the highs are in the 90s.
In the movie, this summer is particularly hot, reaching triple digits. If you think cold weather and driving through snow makes people crazy, remember the sultry days of summer–the sticky seats, the sweat wet clothing and the discomfort of being in un-air conditioned buildings. If the weather sets us up for misery, the prologue sets us up for tragedy and epic verbal brawling.
The movie, like the play, begins with a prologue. The once-famous poet, Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard) is interviewing a sturdy, young Native American woman, Johnna (Misty Upham) to be a live-in cook and caregiver for his wife, Violet (Meryl Streep). This is a marriage built on misery and mutual addictions. His drug of choice is alcohol. Hers is a variety of pills. Violet is being treated for mouth cancer and we’ll see soon enough that Violet’s mouth is a vile weapon, a nuclear warhead that explodes with hateful words that poison her family.
Do you remember the late Elizabeth Taylor in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” This is Streep’s turn as a bitter, hollow woman, but in “Osage,” Violet has real children and they are the casualties of her war on the world.
Not surprisingly, all of the children but one have fled the large, two-story house and its expansive grounds. You can’t see their nearest neighbor, something that helped keep their secrets in a way that urban proximity can’t. Ivy Weston (Julianne Nicholson) has been caring for both Beverly and Violet which makes one wonder why Beverly hired Johnna.
However, Beverly has disappeared and the children are called back. Violet’s sister, Mattie Fae Aiken (Margo Martindale) and her husband Charles (Chris Cooper) arrive first, opening up the windows that have been shuttered making day and night seem of little consequence. The eldest, Barbara (Julia Roberts), her estranged husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) and their 14-year-old daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin) drive in from Colorado.
Karen (Juliette Lewis), the middle child, arrives with her flashy fiancé, Steve (Dermot Mulroney) who is driving a “I’ve hit my midlife crisis or I’ve never really grown past my teenage years” red sports car. If Barbara was their father’s favorite and Violet’s main antagonist, and Ivy was the quiet, good girl, Karen was the negotiator, attempting to get peace, unfortunately at any cost.
It doesn’t take long for Violet to spew her radioactive words, but we soon learn that the seemingly affable Mattie is just as cruel to her only child, Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch). Beverly is found dead, a suicide perhaps, but alcoholism is essentially slow suicide. Little Charles misses the ceremony, late, befuddled and unable to meet anyone’s eyes except Ivy.
This story will not end happily and, to be sure, there are a lot of skeletons being dragged out of the closet and the damage is almost embedded in this family’s DNA.
I saw this play, “August: Osage County,” with Estelle Parsons at the Ahmanson. Parsons is 5-foot-4 while Meryl Streep is a mere two inches taller. Julia Roberts is 5-foot-9. Parsons portrayed Violet as a mean pixy of a woman. She didn’t have the bulk to seem as belligerently threatening as Streep.
Streep first appears ghastly pale with her hair so light and cut so short it barely disguises her scalp. This isn’t the glorious mane of Sophie from “Sophie’s Choice” or the long, fly-away hippy hair of “Mama Mia.” Streep seems not thin, but carelessly bulky. When she does put on a wig, the color is too dark for her complexion and too obviously shaped without real style. Her Violet doesn’t glide, she lumbers into a room with the grace of a drunken rhino or charges in with her sharp eyes observing, taking aim before she opens her mouth.
If Beverly was a poet of some note, Violet is wordsmith of weapons of mass destruction, clever and cruel. Her children huddle together for protection, but in escape, they are not unified.
No doubt, not all of your holiday meals are peaceful and more than a few people will find holiday family time like an on-going civil war. This film might be fuel for the home fireworks or allow you to reaccess your family time. Things may be bad, but they aren’t this bad so you can survive the minor barbs compared to the damaging shrapnel and radioactive waste that fills the Weston family home in “August: Osage County.”