Based on the play of the same name written by Tracy Letts — he also wrote this screenplay — August: Osage County is a very funny and surprisingly dramatic movie about a group of unlikable people in a family with them. It all works, to be sure, and the film throws enough curveballs and jokes at us to keep itself entertaining. Just know that you’re not going to come away liking too many of its characters; they’re interesting people, but they’re not nice.
the film opens with the hiring of a woman named Johnna (Misty Upham), who is brought in to be a live-in housekeeper for an older couple, Beverly (Sam Shepard) and Violet (Meryl Streep). They have an arrangement: Beverly can drink and Violet can pop pills and neither one will say anything to the other. A little while later, Beverly goes missing, prompting an impromptu family reunion. Violet’s sister and both of their children, their children’s spouses, and their grandchildren all get together in a small house outside of town. Tensions are already running high prior to this get together, so what do you think happens when you coop them all up in a house where the mean temperature hovers around 90 degrees Fahrenheit?
The answer: everyone fights at all points in time. Violet has three daughters, Barbara (Julia Roberts), Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), and Karen (Juliette Lewis). They all have their own relationship issues. Barbara, for instance, is currently separated from her husband, Bill (Ewan McGregor), and they shuttle their daughter, Jean (Abigail Breslin), back and forth. All three of them took the tip to Osage County.
Meanwhile, Violet’s sister, Mattie (Margo Martindale), made the trip with her husband, Charles (Chris Cooper), and their son, “Little” Charlie (Benedict Cumberbatch). They have their own problems. Some of these are independent from the rest of the family, while others are directly related. Everyone seems to fight with everyone. One select scene, taking place during dinner, has every character in it, and it is so wonderful that you almost wish the whole movie contained just this one scene.
It takes a little while to absorb who all of these people are and what their relation is to everyone else. I’d wager it takes about the first half hour to really feel comfortable knowing this. Thankfully, most of the drama is saved for after this part, as if the filmmakers knew that this is a large number of characters to introduce in a drama. There are jabs and barbs thrown in this early section but nothing like what comes later — everything boils over after this introductory section is over.
The film is darkly funny. The premise isn’t in the least bit comedic, and if one were to draw a timeline of the events depicted here it would be difficult to even draw a smile, but the way the script plays out and the way the actors deliver their lines — it actually does wind up being very humorous. Julia Roberts, by herself, gets more laughs than some comedies. Here, she is stripped of all glamor and style, dropping F-bombs like nobody’s business, and it’s both a great dramatic and comedic performance.
August: Osage County throws in a lot of reveals and twists as it progresses. I think there almost might be too many. It’s tiring watching this movie and keeping track of everyone and how they relate to everyone else, and then even more information needs to be taken in, on the fly, which throws a wrench into what you thought about everyone. It’s thrilling, and if your mind is up for it, it’s worth it, but it’s also kind of exhausting. Caring after all of the events in this movie is more difficult than you would hope.
It’s all still very effective family drama, though, and you’re likely to gain some sort of insight into your own family and relationships by watching this one. Characters occasionally drop into monologues designed to teach us — and the other characters, I suppose — something, and there are more than a couple of recurring themes scattered throughout. Abandonment, for one, is probably going to be what many people take from the picture.
This is a movie filled with Oscar winners and those who previously have Oscar nominations. Putting them all in an enclosed space makes for an acting showcase. The film will likely have three nominations this year when it comes to the performances. Meryl Streep was going to be nominated regardless, and Julia Roberts and Margo Martindale should also both get in. Almost every actor here gets one scene to steal, but it’s these three who get to show off for more than just a couple of moments. These are all complex emotional roles, and each actor here deserves some sort of credit. More ensemble awards should be given out.
August: Osage County is a film that tires you out. There are so many characters to keep track of, a great deal of reveals and twists scattered later in the film, and so much emotional tension that you will likely want to take a nap after you watch it. That speaks highly to how effective the movie is. It might not make you like many of its characters, but it will keep you interested in them until they leave you.