The dysfunctional family drama is practically a genre unto itself, and “August: Osage County” sticks firmly to its tropes.
By Noah Gittell
The dysfunctional family drama is practically a genre unto itself, and “August: Osage County” sticks firmly to its tropes. In fact, when you hear the plot, you’ll feel like you’ve already seen it: A dysfunctional family comes together in the home of its matriarch for a weekend of simmering tension that occasionally boils over into vicious arguments and revelations of long-held secrets that shake the family’s foundation. What makes “August: Osage County” unusual, however, is the film’s fatal flaw: a poor Meryl Streep performance.
Yes, you read that right. Now let me explain: Obviously, the three-time Academy Award winner’s acting chops are not in question, but her choices in the role throw the film distinctly out of balance. As Violet, the chain-smoking, pill-popping matriarch of the Weston family, Streep does the impossible: she creates an unlikeable, barely sympathetic character that is impossible to take your eyes off of. Taken by itself, it’s a compelling portrayal of grief, but an ensemble film requires actors to be on the same page, and Streep often feels like she’s in a different book entirely.
In her defense, it’s a big, almost cartoonish role that probably was a better fit for the stage (the screenplay by Tracy Letts is based on his 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winning play). There is a lot in Violet for an actress to sink her teeth into – she is simultaneously dying of cancer and grieving over her recently deceased husband — but Streep spends too much time chewing the scenery and not enough connecting with the other actors.
It’s too bad because several of them are on top of their game. Julia Roberts, as the clan’s eldest daughter, gives a subtle, layered performance, revealing how the tender place a mother hurts her child can turn hard and impenetrable. But it never resonates because her onscreen partner is unwilling. The rest of the stellar cast suffers the same fate: Chris Cooper, Margo Martindale, Dermot Mulroney, Juliette Lewis, Ewan McGregor, Benedict Cumberbatch, and others – as cogs in the dysfunctional family machine – play off each other nicely, but they crumble beneath Streep’s towering performance.
But let me give credit where it is due: “August: Osage County” goes to much darker places than the typical family drama and refuses to layer its family’s poisonous dynamic with any sweetness. The characters never quite warm up to each other in the end, and although there are moments of pathos, we get the sense that the most these poor souls can hope to do is transcend their past, not repair it. The romantic relationship between two of the film’s grown cousins – played with aching sadness by Julianne Nicholson and Benedict Cumberbatch – holds the film’s full but timid heart, and it’s clear that their love is too good for the world “August: Osage County” inhabits.
But this complex depiction of pain and yearning in a hurtful world never sticks, and most of its Streep’s fault. In a film that has to work overtime to pack nearly a dozen characters, each with complex, specific connections to each other, into two hours, it hurts to have one character dominate the screen so completely. How could this have been avoided? A better question might be, “How do you correct Meryl Streep?” I suppose it’s the director’s job to coax the right performance out of his actors, but it might have been unreasonable to ask poor John Wells – who has directed only one other film – to reign in Madame Streep. I mean, how do you criticize Leonardo Da Vinci’s brushstrokes? How do you tell Mozart that one of his chords is not quite right? It’s not fair to put the film’s failure entirely on Streep’s shoulders, but four decades of brilliant performances have raised the bar considerably. I suppose everyone is allowed one mistake.
My Rating: Put it on Your Queue