August: Osage County
Starring Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Julianne Nicholson, Chris Cooper, Juliette Lewis, Margo Martindale, Ewan McGregor, Dermot Mulroney and Benedict Cumberbatch.
Directed by John Wells
From The Weinstein Company
Opens Jan. 10
August: Osage County is a dusty, wind-swept void of dark comedy.
It’s about incest, affairs, death, suicide, emotional assault, drug addiction, alcohol abuse, and one scene of an adult trying to possibly exploit a minor. It’s a dark comedy with every shade of dark. But right there in the middle of it is a scene I never thought I would ever see: one beloved Academy Award winner telling another beloved Academy Award winner to eat the catfish on her dinner plate. “Eat it, you …” and then just fill the rest in with your favorite four-letter words. These demands, delivered like salvos of mortar fire, are said with so much disdain that a fork plunged through a major artery might actually be a step down.
The scene is made all the better by the stars of it: Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep. Julia is the one doing all the cursing, and wow is it ever glorious. If Erin Brockovich was her warm-up then August: Osage County is her showing off with a marathon of f-words and other vulgarities. At one point she riffs on the word “vagina,” coming up with a lovely array of colorful synonyms for her mother’s lady parts. On the receiving end of the catfish scene is Streep, here playing a pill-popping widow whose cruel reign over her family has created an avalanche of resentment and pain. Streep, a lovely actress who will no doubt get many acting nominations for this remarkable performance, has been cursed at like this before — albeit never in public or on camera — by every actress bumped out of a nomination list by the famous star. Only Julia has done it on camera for everyone else to witness.
And, real quickly, speaking of catfish, this is the second time the bottom-feeding whiskered fish has featured prominently in a movie in the last year. The first time was in that wacky piece of abstract sex-art in Ridley Scott’s The Counselor. And now here. Both scenes are completely bonkers, but for very different reasons.
August: Osage County is based on the play by Tracy Letts. It begins with Sam Shepard speaking his Hemingway-like lines with a touch of whiskey-infused poetry. He’s talking to the newly hired maid, who serves as the only constant in this mangled tale of family. By the next day, he turns up dead in a lake — suicide. As his family converges in on his homestead for the funeral, his three daughters — foul-mouthed Barbara (Roberts), cousin-loving Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) and floozie Karen (Juliette Lewis) — must wrangle with their mother, Violet (Streep), who isn’t too heartbroken by her husband’s death. She pops some pills, dons a wig and then claws into her children, some of whom deserve it. She uses her mouth as a weapon, sniping at every failure of her children, be it minor (divorce) or major (incest). The irony is not lost earlier when we find out she has cancer. Mouth cancer.
This is some of the finest acting you will see on the big screen. A rather big deal has been made about Streep’s career, how she gets nominated simply because “she’s Meryl.” That all may be true with certain performances (Iron lady comes to mind), but it can’t be said here, where she outdoes herself with this vile and wicked mother and her conniving perspective on life. Streep’s craft, and her dedication to it, is unquestionable as she blurts and spurts vindictive rhetoric at her kin. Then there’s Julia Roberts, a force all her own. she pokes holes in the name "America's sweetheart," but not many.
The minor performances will be stampeded over to congratulate the two powerhouses, but smaller performances deserve recognition too, including Julianne Nicholson as Violet’s most naïve and optimistic daughter, Chris Cooper as a straight-shootin’ brother-in-law, character actress Margo Martindale as a controlling aunt and Misty Upham as the maid, who remarkably doesn’t walk out of the job 10 minutes into this madness. The cast is so big that I haven’t even yet spoken about Ewan McGregor, Dermot Mulroney or Benedict Cumberbatch — all three play pawns in this devious game of chess.
August: Osage County does not contain the most remarkable plot, nor does it contain the most riveting dialogue. Some viewers will find its pacing slow, and its story lacking. That's alright, though, because the reason you're going to see it — to watch two acting juggernauts duke it out in an all-out verbal warfare — is plenty enough already.