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August: Osage County Movie Review

August: Osage County (2013) movie poster August: Osage County

Theatrical Release: December 27, 2013 / Running Time: 119 Minutes / Rating: R

Director: John Wells / Writer: Tracy Letts (play & screenplay)

Cast: Meryl Streep (Violet Weston), Julia Roberts (Barbara Weston), Ewan McGregor (Bill Fordham), Chris Cooper (Charlie Aiken), Abigail Breslin (Jean Fordham), Benedict Cumberbatch (Little Charles Aiken), Juliette Lewis (Karen Weston), Margo Martindale (Mattie Fae Aiken), Dermot Mulroney (Steve Huberbrecht), Julianne Nicholson (Ivy Weston), Sam Shepard (Beverly Weston), Misty Upham (Johnna Monevata), Will Coffey (Sheriff Deon Gilbeau)

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If you weren't aware coming in that August: Osage County is based on a play, you'll know by the end. This dramedy gathers the Westons in the titular time and place
after the apparent suicide of the large family's patriarch Beverly (Sam Shepard). It opts not to show the funeral and to only leave the dark, stuffy residence of eccentric, prescription drug-addled new widow Violet (Meryl Streep) to show relatives approaching or leaving.

Beverly's death is cause for reunion, a tense and somewhat terrifying prospect in this family carrying secrets and unspoken resentments. Barbara (Julia Roberts) and Bill (Ewan McGregor) are hiding their recent and painful separation. Her younger sister Karen (Juliette Lewis) is flaunting the latest in a long line of jerk boyfriends, Steve (Dermot Mulroney). Mousey Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) wants to reveal her new love interest, but he, her first cousin, "Little" Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch), isn't sure that's the right approach. His parents (Chris Cooper and Margo Martindale) are already mad at him for missing the funeral.

Meryl Streep plays Violet Weston, the intimidating matriarch who hosts her large family's gathering in the wake of her husband's death in "August: Osage County."

August is one of those award season contenders you see coming from a mile away. It had a Christmas Day opening staked out long in advance (later bumped to December 27th), a large and talented cast headed by the much-decorated Ms. Streep, Tracy Letts' Tony, Drama Desk, and Pulitzer Prize-winning play as its source, and counts Argo's George Clooney and Grant Heslov among its producers. It's also got Oscar specialists The Weinstein Company as its distributor and their anticipated undivided efforts, with no other film in their portfolio expected to compete as extensively.

Nonetheless, in the two and a half months between my festival screening of August and today's nationwide expansion, the film's stock has dropped. It's even gone from Weinstein's obvious strongest candidate to one of four films that could all narrowly miss out on major nominations.

Not merely an actress, Streep is one of the biggest female movie stars of any age. But neither she nor her accomplished co-stars are likely to lift this into a commercial triumph, not with just the handful of Oscar nominations this at most seems likely to settle for.

Secrets are shared and guarded during the Weston family's large, uneasy dinner in "August: Osage County."

Adapting his own play for the screen (as he did on 2012's Killer Joe), Letts isn't too concerned with creating a cinematic experience. The film is all about gathering these kin in one sweltering place, where Violet's anti-air conditioning stance has proven too much for multiple tropical birds, and seeing what happens.
What happens, typical for non-musical theatre, is the characters talk. They reveal some secrets to some and hide others from others. There's a lot of catching up to do or not to do, for this is the rare occasion they're all together.

The material lends to big performances and none is as big as Meryl Streep's. Academy members may regret awarding Streep Best Actress for 2011's The Iron Lady. That honor followed twelve consecutive fruitless nominations, a record on to itself. Streep's performance here, as a bewigged, sharp-tongued, cancer-afflicted matriarch, is a much stronger demonstration of her knack for characterization than her uncanny Margaret Thatcher impression. And, though far from outstanding, August is a superior film to that muddled prime minister biopic. But awarding Streep another Oscar now is like awarding LeBron James another MVP. Except Academy members don't have stats to look at, only their hearts and, historically, their hearts have led them to be somewhat imaginative, not repetitive, in their selections.

The film's other acting contender is Julia Roberts, who is competing in the supporting category. Roberts won lead actress for 2000's Erin Brockovich, after which her status as America's Sweetheart wore off. She hasn't attracted any recognition in a while from anywhere but the celebrity-blinded Golden Globes. That could work to her advantage, as surely will the fact that so few female roles are substantial enough to even enter the conversation.

Awards are of obvious interest to this film, the second feature directed by John Wells, the longtime executive producer whose TV credits include "ER" and "The West Wing." August improves upon his debut, heavy-handed The Company Men, but that seems due to the fact that he isn't relying on a clumsy screenplay he himself wrote. August features uniformly good work from the cast, but the material seems more responsible than Wells' direction.

When the film hits its stride during a dinner scene where everyone's character emerges, it is electric. Unfortunately, it is more often simply a fine, dialogue-driven family drama, each relative neatly assigned a problem and asked to combat it while in the presence of the unwell, judgmental, larger than life host. Streep towers over her castmates in screen presence, an effect that appears to be by design, and heightens the drama, as she confesses awareness of these dark secrets others have been trying to hide from her.

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Related Reviews:
Meryl Streep: Marvin's Room Doubt Julie & Julia The Iron Lady Fantastic Mr. Fox | Directed by John Wells: The Company Men
Julia Roberts: Eat Pray Love Mirror Mirror | Ewan McGregor: The Impossible The Men Who Stare at Goats
Margo Martindale: Beautiful Creatures Win Win | Chris Cooper: The Muppets | Benedict Cumberbatch: Star Trek Into Darkness
Oscar Contenders: Her American Hustle Gravity Captain Phillips Saving Mr. Banks Nebraska The Wolf of Wall Street

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Reviewed January 10, 2014.

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