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August: Osage County

Movie Review


Published January 8, 2014 at 12:49 p.m.

I hope your holidays were jolly. When the offices of Seven Days shutter during the festive season to give its staff a well-earned break, it’s the only week of the year I don’t have a deadline to meet. You’d think not having a film to review might provide a welcome vacation for my brain, but that’s not what happens.

What happens is, I actually see way more films than I normally would. It’s the holiday season for you, but it’s awards season for me. The final round of Critics’ Choice Awards voting is right around the corner. (Catch the live broadcast January 16 on the CW Network. That’ll be me drinking too much and talking George Clooney’s ear off.)

For Your Consideration DVDs have been pouring in since October, and the time for considering the last of them has arrived. Over the break, one of the pictures to which I’ve been giving a great deal of consideration is August: Osage County. Clooney produced it, and the question I feel compelled to ask is Why, George, for the love of God, man, why?

It is perhaps the year’s most jaw-dropping dud — a miserable failure and a failure of miserablism featuring an unbelievable gang of A-listers. Half the stars at the Critics’ Choice ceremony will have played a role in this offense against cinema.

Directed by John (The Company Men) Wells, this two-hour adaptation of Tracy Letts’ three-and-a-half-hour Pulitzer-winning play stars Meryl Streep as Violet Weston, a pill-popping Oklahoma monster who’s watched Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? too many times. “I’m just truth telling,” she slurs to family members who’ve gathered round following the disappearance of her husband (Sam Shepard, as an alcoholic poet named Beverly). But truth is the last thing she’s interested in. Violet lives to draw blood, and words are her weapon of choice.

Set in 2007 and marketed as “the year’s most wicked comedy,” the movie’s light on laughs and heavy on boilerplate family dysfunction. Its centerpiece is an extended dinner scene in the course of which the merciless matriarch tears into her three daughters (Julia Roberts, Julianne Nicholson and Juliette Lewis), feasting on their flaws and misfortunes. In the process, everyone from Ewan McGregor to Chris Cooper to Dermot Mulroney to Abigail Breslin to Margo Martindale to the suddenly inescapable Benedict Cumberbatch is served up as a side dish.

For the first half hour or so, Streep’s bitch-on-wheels shtick is good mean fun. But the script (by Letts) jettisons so much of the play that the remainder feels sketchy and super-stagy — like something Eugene O’Neill might have written for the Lifetime channel. On the menu: infidelity, family secrets, addiction, divorce and, of course, life lessons. Yawn. The missing hour and a half likely would’ve made a more interesting movie.

The best scene is the first. Shepard opens it by quoting from T.S. Eliot’s 1925 poem “The Hollow Men”: “Life,” he recites, “is very long.” You come to understand how someone surrounded by such boring barracudas could feel that way, and never for a second question his decision to make an early exit. You may well decide to make one yourself.

And — speaking of Eliot — Wells, Letts and their cast (some of Hollywood’s best, not remotely at their best here) in effect rewrite one of his classics with this freak show’s festival of caterwauling, claw baring and catfights. April, once the “cruellest month,” can’t hold a candle to this August.