At one point during “August: Osage County,” the two-hour comedy-drama set in Osage County, Okla., the external temperature reaches an excruciating 108 degrees. This blast of heat, however, has nothing on the familial drama sizzling within the four walls of the Weston home.
Meryl Streep plays Violet Weston, a blazing matriarch slowly deteriorating from mouth cancer. Despite her withered form, her words sting with a determined defamation as she takes aim at everyone around her.
When Violet’s husband Beverley (Sam Shepard) goes missing and is then discovered to have committed suicide, the entire Weston family arrives to attend his funeral.
First, there is Barbara, played with the spirit of a raging tiger by Julia Roberts, who is considered the family favorite and has taken personal responsibility to run her mother’s crippling life. Ewan McGregor plays Bill, Barbara’s soon-to-be ex-husband and pacifier of the crew. Violet has two other daughters, Karen (a convincingly innocent Juliette Lewis) and Ivy (played with marvelous subtlety by Julianne Nicholson).
Ivy has been constant in Violet’s life, while Karen and Barbara have been off pursing their dreams.
The cast is rounded out by Violet’s sister Mattie Fae (Margot Martindale at her best), her husband Charles (a powerful Chris Cooper), their son Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch), Karen’s sleazy new boyfriend Steve (Dermot Mulroney), the Westons’ servant Johanna (Misty Upham) and Barbara and Bill’s daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin).
The cast list appears like a dream lineup for an acting master class, and what each member of this beautiful ensemble brings to the film is no disappointment.
Tracy Lett’s screenplay, based on his Pulitzer-Prize winning play of the same name, is stocked with histrionic revelations and expertly-crafted moments for each character’s development. There is the final confrontation between Mattie Fae and Charles, the tense back-and-forth between Steve and Jean and the infamous sequence in which Barbara tackles Violet to the ground.
When the entire family gathers for dinner post-funeral, the gates of hell snap open. What follows is a tour-de-force of conflict including adultery, incest, drug abuse, lies and honesty. While other films this season depend on tender subtlety, this story rolls on with a thunderous intensity.
And therein lies the problem that most critics have found with the film. They point out the bombastic complaining by the cast and chastise Streep and Roberts for “over-performing.” With so much talent packed into one room it is hard to not notice each member attempting to “out-act” the others.
If one digs deeper into this realization, however, you can notice that what these actors are doing is not for the sake of awards or empty attention. They are portraying their characters with a kind of honesty most films shy away from. The truth is, whether we want to admit it or not, “August: Osage County” is the epitome of the family drama.
Families feel jealousy. They lie to each other. They cheat on each other. And they do not do it with artistic nuance. They do it with bleak honesty. Sometimes that candor is loud, obnoxious and showy.
What Streep and her ensemble are doing can certainly be interpreted as over acting, but in my eyes they are simply settling into the dramatic honesty of the Weston family.
It would be wrong for them to share bitter whispers across a slow-cooked turkey dinner. Shattering plates, relentlessly cursing and letting their emotions boil like a kettle of hot tea seems like the only accurate way to fully capture the powerful story of this cracked family.
Streep and the cast are not losing themselves in the dripping drama of the screenplay. They know exactly what they are doing. And perhaps the criticism stems from the fact that the year’s most flashy film is also the hardest for us to watch. The drama reminds us of our own family issues, whatever they may be, and Letts does not let us forget that no matter how hard we try to ignore it, family is forever.