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?
Writer/director Woody Allen chose to remain behind the camera for Whatever Works employing Larry David as his muse. The Curb Your Enthusiasm star plays a cranky pessimist who becomes the initially unwilling husband to a much MUCH younger Southern girl with a father fixation. But when her conservative mother arrives all hell breaks loose as Mom tries to drive her daughter away from the old guy and toward a much younger model. But New York City has a strange effect on everyone and soon everyone in this very disparate group learns the best things in life are really “whatever works.”
WHO’S IN IT?
Forgoing the umpteenth opportunity to play the May/December romance bit again Allen turns over the starring role to David in an inspired bit of casting about which it’s simply impossible to curb your enthusiasm. David given hilarious monologues that riff on life and border on a constant stream of doomsday analysis is perfect casting in Allen’s peculiar New York world. What’s most surprising is he actually creates a three-dimensional character we grow to care about even though the flow of one-liners rarely stops. As the super-conservative Southern yokel mother-in-law Patricia Clarkson is equally at home in Allen’s universe and takes the stereotypical role into unexpected places. As the innocent ex-beauty queen who bounces into David’s life Evan Rachel Wood practically channels a backwoods Tammy persona but somehow it works well enough for us to believe she could actually fall for such a cranky old man. Also of note is Ed Begley Jr.’s terrific turn as her pious father and estranged hubby of Clarkson who shows up near the end and defies all convention.
After a sojourn abroad first to England for his expert thriller Match Point and the less successful Scoop then to Spain for last year’s delightful Vicky Cristina Barcelona Allen returns triumphantly to his New York roots for the first time since 2004’s Melinda and Melinda. Despite the absence he hasn’t lost a beat when it comes to his very singular view of the Big Apple and its inhabitants. Casting David was the masterstroke that makes this one stand out as one of the prolific Allen’s (he turns out a film a year) most consistently amusing works in some time.
Whatever Works is very slight and feels more like one of the comedian’s New Yorker short stories than a fully fleshed-out motion picture. But when you’ve got this kind of sharp dialogue and these performers it’s hard to quibble about substance.
NETFLIX OR MULTIPLEX?
Whatever works for you but if you’re a Woody Allen or Larry David fan it’s a must wherever you see it.