Weinstein Company via Everett Collection
Forget the television commercials that try to reduce August: Osage County to either some madcap romp or some cheery family comedy. This film is dark. Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Tracy Letts, who adapted his script for this big screen version, the black humor of the play does not necessarily translate on screen. Instead, it feels like a bleak downward spiral of a family so full of bitterness and resentment, it’s on the verge of implosion.
As directed by John Wells, the film version of August: Osage County may not feel like a fun movie, but it’s a terrific study of a family on the brink. As he steers the drama to slow-burning heights, anger both repressed and unchecked coil around each other like two boa constrictors trying to consume the other. The lengthy conversations swell to epic confrontations that are a sight to behold.
The cast offer up sincere performances that take the story to another arena that’s more heartbreak than humorous. Violet (Meryl Streep) first appears on screen with short-cropped gray, scraggly hair, chain smoking while both cursing and sweet-talking her husband (Sam Shepard) in a drunken stupor as he attempts to hire service aide Johnna (Misty Upham). “Are you an injun?” Violet asks her.
Violet is an old time "casual racist." But she also has mouth cancer and a habit of abusing pain killers. She seems constantly on the edge of boiling over. She can’t seem to bear her proximity to the end while everyone else watches. Hell hath no fury like a narcissist on the edge of death.
Weinstein Company via Everett Collection
The target of much of her anger falls on, but is not limited to, her three daughters. She treats eldest Barbara (Julia Roberts) as a threatening equal (dad’s favorite), Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) with passive-aggressive disdain and the youngest, Karen (Juliette Lewis), with mean, outright insignificance. It’s such a varied pallet of abuse that it would be decadent if it didn’t come off as so cruel. All actresses hold their own, feeding off Streep and the rich script, which offers up one skeleton after another in the family’s history of unresolved issues.
Streep’s work in August: Osage County could be among the best of her many great performances. She plays an unlikable, often cruel character, which is all the more reason to appreciate how she can turn the angry, abusive matriarch into a sympathetic woman. In the end, your heart will break for what she knows have been missteps in raising a family. Too egotistical a wretch to rise above her failures for a kind word, she seems to clash with her own zealous pride, which gradually unravels through the course of the film.
Wells, who comes to this film — his second feature — after directing several episodes for the Showtime dysfunctional family series Shameless, also seems inspired by the source material. He dresses up the mise-en-scene appropriately. The film’s washed out browns and yellows capture the rotting malaise of a family barreling toward disintegration. The music is moving in parts, if somewhat manipulative. This is an emotional roller-coaster of a film.
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Ultimately, as it’s based on a play, August: Osage County is about performances. Wells gives the actors plenty of room to tear into the material, even if it fails to rise to the play’s black comedy. But who cares if August: Osage County does not necessarily pull that off? It instead offers a rather twisted, morose family drama that features some of the year’s best acting turns.
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WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
Claire is an attractive CIA operative and Ray is an M16 agent who simultaneously leave their Governmental spy activities in the dust to try and profit from a battle between two rival multi-national corporations both trying to launch a new product that will transform the world and make billions. Their goal is to secure the top-secret formula and get a patent before they are outsmarted. While their respective egomaniacal CEOs engage in an unending battle of wills and one-upmanship Claire and Ray start out conning and playing one another in a clever game of industrial espionage that is even more complicated due to their own long-term romantic relationship.
WHO’S IN IT?
Reuniting Closer co-stars Julia Roberts (as Claire) and Clive Owen (as Ray) turns out to be an inspired idea. They turn out to be the perfect pair oozing movie-star charm and electricity in this elaborate con-game that might have been the kind of thing Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant might have made in the '60s (in fact they did in Charade). Roberts with that infamous hairstyle back the way we like it and Owen looking great in sunglasses prove they have what it takes to navigate us through this ultra-complex plot in which no one is sure who they can trust at any given moment. They play it all in high style and the wit just flows as the story skirts back and forth during the period of five years. The supporting cast is well-chosen with juicy roles for Tom Wilkinson and Paul Giamatti (out of their John Adams duds) as the two CEOs going for each other’s throats. Giamatti who sometimes has a tendency to overdo it is especially slimy here and great fun to watch.
Big-star studio movies today rarely take risks and often talk down to the audience but in Duplicity writer/director Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton) has crafted a complicated con-comedy that requires complete attention at all times just to keep up with the dense plot’s twists and turns. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a New York Times crossword puzzle and Gilroy and his top-drawer production team deliver a glossy beautiful-looking film that’s easy on the eyes hitting locations from Dubai to Rome to New York City.
Like any good puzzle it sometimes can be frustrating putting it all together and Gilroy’s habit of taking us back in time and then inching forward gets a little confusing even with the on-screen chyron pointing out where we are at any given moment. Stick with it though and you will be well-rewarded.
A scene near the end where the formula must be found scanned and faxed in a matter of minutes is sweat-inducing edge-of-your-seat moviemaking and it provides the ultimate opportunity for Roberts and Owen to take the “con” to the next level. Another where Roberts uses a thong to try and trick Owen into admitting an affair he never had is also priceless and gets right to the heart of the game-playing.
GO OUT AND GET POPCORN WHEN ...
Never. Stock up during the coming attractions. If you miss a moment of this entertaining romp you might never figure it all out.
Phil Weston (Ferrell) is a kindly fellow who owns and runs a vitamin store has a lovely wife (Kate Walsh) and son and has some serious issues with his father Buck (Robert Duvall). All his life Phil has had to endure his father's over-the-top competitive nature and he always falling short of the mark. When Phil decides to coach his 10-year-old son's soccer team he once again goes up against Buck who coaches his own young son on the top team in the league. Of course Phil's team is the worst team on the league but that doesn't matter. Something suddenly snaps in Phil and he sees a chance to settle some old scores with the old man. He starts using extreme measures to try to whip his young charges into shape. They include getting Mike Ditka as an assistant coach (played by the real ex-football coach oddly enough) bringing on two Italian whiz kids as secret weapons and drinking lots and lots of coffee (trust me it works). Phil can taste his first real shot at victory and will stop at nothing to win the championship trophy.
Some of you might think Ferrell's antics are wearing a little thin that maybe he's a little overrated and overexposed. But I'm not one of them. Ferrell could read a telephone book and I'd laugh. So watching him once again play a hapless bighearted loser--who is pushed to the edge so much so that he berates children calls the formidable Ditka a "Juice-box boy" and melts right on down to the nub--is another treat for me. Of course much like Walter Matthau in Bad News Bears Ferrell has some help from his younger costars. The misfit soccer team includes all the different types: a diminutive fireplug (Elliot Cho) whose lesbian mothers (played hilariously by Rachael Harris and Laura Kightlinger) keep insisting is "shy"; a wisecracker (Steven Anthony Lawrence) with a serious overbite; and of course Phil's own sweet son Sam (Dylan McLaughlin) who just wants to have fun. Ditka also seems to be having a good time in all his bullying glory. Duvall however doesn't really have much to do except throw his weight around a bit--and perhaps relive some of his The Great Santini moments.
Kicking & Screaming has a couple of things going for it. The father-son and underdog themes are tried and true plot contrivances that inherently work because of the ultimate payoffs. Director Jesse Dylan (American Wedding) along with the writing team of Leo Benvenuti and Steve Rudnick (The Santa Clause) knows this and exploit the machinations to their fullest capabilities. You want Phil's team to win at any costs but of course you want them all to learn a big lesson. Ho hum. Unlike the charming Parenthood or the irreverent Bad News Bears Kicking & Screaming unfortunately caters to the formulaic a tad too much. Save for a few comic bursts from its lead player it never really finds its own individuality.