I have several personal terms/nicknames defining certain types of movies, and one of them is ‘chocolate box movie’. In my definition, chocolate box film is usually packed with a bunch of good actors who respectively have each own scene to showcase acting in front of us, and we can’t possibly go wrong with them unless it is totally ruined by their director or writer. Even if we are not entirely satisfied with the whole package, we come to savor their individual scenes for their acting, and we come to enjoy different performances, or flavors, in its box.
“August: Osage County”, directed by John Wells and adapted by Tracy Letts from his acclaimed stage play which won the Pulitzer prize along with several Tony awards including Best Play, is one of those chocolate box movies, and it begins promisingly with three good actors in one lonely house in a rural area outside Pawhuska, Oklahoma. Beverly Weston(Sam Shepard), the patriarch of the troublesome Weston family, is conducting a job interview with a native American woman named Johnna(Misty Upham from “Frozen River”(2008)), but we see him talking about himself and his miserable life rather than asking her about whether she can be a good live-in cook and nurse for Beverly’s ailing wife Violet(Meryl Streep).
We soon meet Violet, and she is not a woman you can feel sorry for. While going through a difficult treatment for her mouth cancer, this bitter, vicious woman keeps smoking or popping pills or hurling vitriolic comments to others near her, and Meryl Streep makes her character into a monstrous caricature of misery and resentment. Besides being confused in her drug-addicted mind, she is not very happy, so she is always ready to drag down others into her misery, and we can only guess from Shepard’s resigned appearance that how much Beverly, who was once a good poet but now is being mired in books and bottles, has been tolerating this difficult woman.
And then he is suddenly disappeared not long after that, and, not so surprisingly, his family gathering for this emergency soon gets the news that he was drowned in a nearby lake. While no one is particularly shocked by this news, Barbara(Julia Roberts), one of Beverly and Violet’s three daughters, has lots of issues with her mother besides her own problems, and we can see there will be lots of barbs and shouts exchanged between them – especially they and other family members gather around their dinner table.
The movie is basically a typical resentful family drama evoking several classic dramas by Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill, and we are naturally served with the dark dynamic between angry, bitter characters along with a couple of revelations for dramatic/humorous effects. The movie has a wry sense of dark humor even during its most hurtful moments, and the actors bite their lines hard to accentuate it, and we get several good intense scenes as their characters bitterly clash with each other throughout the film.
The actors assembled for the movie are interesting to watch even though not all of them give satisfying performances. Meryl Streep has recently received her another record-breaking Oscar nomination for this film(it’s her 18th nomination, by the way), but, like her recent Oscar-winning performance in “The Iron Lady”(2011), the movie is not exactly one of the best moments in her career. Of course, she is good as usual, but her character remains as a thin caricature in spite of her good scenes which provide us the glimpse of humanity inside this utterly unlikable character. When Violet in her relatively docile mood openly reminisces about how lousy her mother was to Violet and her sister Mattie Fae(Margo Martindale) in the past, we get a pretty good idea about how she became such a bad mom to her own daughters, and we feel a little sorry about her – for a while.
On the opposite, Julia Roberts holds herself well against Streep as a hardened woman we can more easily identify with. Although Barbara does not like her mother much, a family tie is not something easy to cut off, so she tries to tolerate her mother’s mean words and behaviors, but she always finds herself thrown into the emotional tug-of-war with Violet whenever she is with her. Roberts, who finally got a nice opportunity to fully flex her acting muscle after long years and is rewarded with an Oscar nomination for her performance here in this film, has a good scene when Barbara finally decides enough is enough; she only gives a relatively restrained gesture to her mother, but we can clearly see her crucial ultimate decision through that.
Streep and Roberts are surrounded by the competent supporting ensemble, and some of them are wasted while others are good enough to match Streep and Roberts. Julianne Nicholson and Juliette Lewis are Barbara’s sisters Ivy and Karen, and they and Roberts have an easy rapport between them during the scene when the girls have their own private time together. Abigail Breslin, who has grown up a lot since her Oscar-nominated turn in “Little Miss Sunshine”(2006), is more or less than wasted as Barbara’s willful teenager daughter, and the same thing can be said about Ewan McGregor, Dermot Mulroney, and Benedict Cumberbatch, who feels pretty strained as a shy, dim-witted cousin of the Weston girls. As Violet’s sister and brother-in-law, dependable veteran actors Chris Cooper and Margo Martindale give the most convincing performances in the movie, and Martindale is especially good when her character reveals the family’s skeleton in the closet to Barbara during their private conversation. She will do anything to hide it for her son, and we accordingly see how cruel and monstrous one can be in the name of family love.
I enjoyed “August: Osage County” to some degrees, so I was not bored during my viewing, but I got a nagging feeling that the stage version is better none the less. I previously watched the film adaptations of Tracy Letts’ other stage works, and “Bug”(2006) and “Killer Joe”(2011) stroke me hard with their intensity and dark humor as memorable but uncomfortable experiences. Compared to these edgy films, “August: Osage County” feels merely like a mild work barely supported by its ensemble performance, but you will not be disappointed a lot anyway if you watch it just for beholding performances.