AFI Fest: August: Osage County (★★★)

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AugustPosterBruisingly funny and incredibly engaging, August: Osage County is a film that entertains from start to finish. Sure there are a few missteps along the way but there is not a moment while watching the film that’s not trying to actively engage the audience. John Wells, of “E.R.” fame, and a cavalcade of stars bring Tracy Letts‘ Pulitzer prize-winning material to the big screen with the power of the stage play mostly intact.

August: Osage County tells the story of the Weston clan brought together after the patriarch of the family has gone missing. Led by Violet Weston, the drug addicted matriarch of the family, everyone is brought back into the orbit of her destructive ways. That includes her three daughters (played by Julia Roberts, Julianne Nicholson, and Juliette Lewis) with whom she has had an extremely antagonistic relationship with. Despite this, the family tries to bond together and deal with the heartache of losing a member of their family. What should be a time for the family to grieve as one quickly deteriorates into a boiling pot of secrets, anger, and strife as can only happen with family members.

So why then does the film not completely work? Well for starters, the script, written by the playwright himself Tracy Letts, is like a tale of two halves. Split by a dinner scene that would put the Walkers from TV’s “Brothers and Sisters” to shame, the first half just feels like it’s setting up the pieces that are supposed to be knocked down. That in itself isn’t a terrible goal, but the film definitely settles into itself when all the characters are forced to deal with themselves in the Weston house. There are also a few characters such as Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch) that don’t really get the full amount of exploration. Wells is certainly a competent director and he mines gold from most of the awkwardness and jokes, but he does have a tendency to let characters drift away before trying to rush them into their climactic moments. In terms of style, there’s not much to go on and the editing in the quieter scenes leaves a bit to be desired.

The acting definitely stabilizes the film, though a few quibbles to be noted. Meryl Streep, for all her accolades and acting ability, doesn’t manage to rise above her star wattage, though she gives a good performance. It’s one thing to be able to deliver the lines or put on the accent, both of which she does well. But I just couldn’t get past the fact that it was Meryl in this role and she was “acting” as Violet Weston. The transformative quality of the performance was lacking, in my opinion, keeping Streep from really excelling in the role. Julia Roberts on the other hand, is fully present as a star and yet delivers a scintillating performance as the eldest daughter Barbara Weston. She just digs into the part and makes it her own, managing to get both the quiet contemplation and the louder, brassier moments. I want to watch the film again just to see her telling family members to eat catfish. Also giving great performances were Chris Cooper, Margo Martindale and Julianne Nicholson especially. She’s tasked with a particularly difficult role, given where the character ends up but Nicholson excels.

In the end, August: Osage County manages to deliver some solid entertainment and good performances over its running time. Though there are a few issues that hinder the film from reaching its full greatness, it’s still a quality movie.

You can read Clayton’s take by clicking HERE.

August: Osage County opens in theaters on December 25.

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