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August: Osage County – Talent Shines, But to What End?

By Brock Wilbur · December 24, 2013

It's been a good year to be bad to the flyover states. Immediately following on the release of Nebraska comes August: Osage County, an adaptation of the stage play by Tracy Letts and directed by John Wells.

The Weston Family unites in Osage County, Oklahoma after the suicide of Violet's husband. Violet (Meryl Streep) has succumb to years of prescription drug abuse, which couples with her recently acquired mouth cancer to make her The Devil incarnate. She attempts to retain her matriarchal control over the extended family, which includes Barbara (Julia Roberts), and a whole host of other Oscar hopefuls including Chris Cooper, Juliette Lewis, Abagail Breslin, Ewan McGregor, Dermot Mulroney, and more. What ensues is a two hour bout of hysterical shouting and flash, lacking the extra hour the stage play required to make the characters believable, rendering the film as a workmanlike assemblage of Lett's play's greatest hits.

Each actor is offered their moment to shine, save Chris Cooper and Abigail Breslin, who are mostly chewed as scenery by the others. Dexter's Margo Martindale gets a nice chunk of the film, but what it all comes back to is the battle between Streep and Roberts. Unfortunately, this matching suffers from a supporting cast who is, at all times, supporting. The amount of sheer "acting" happening at all times distracts from a story that has taken second place to the talent on display, even taking such lengths as to ask us to imagine Julia Roberts is a sibling to Benedict Cumberbatch, just to shoe-horn in an additional prestige name into this family that looks nothing like a family.

The film is at its best when it lets Streep take the wheel, although the second half has a sharp turn, which puts Roberts at the helm, and Streep is mostly dropped back into supporting until the finale of the movie. The second half also begins to drop characters with a speed that subtracts meaning from their departure, leaving the audience with no true sense of victory or failure, which is perhaps the film's most egregious error: in the end, it has nothing to say. There is disaster and shouting and pain and destruction, but to what end?

A collection of great actors doing great acting with great source material has resulted in one of the most forgettable films of 2013. Everything goes a little too big in a cinematic space a little too small, and while a few scenes or even lines are delivered in spectacular fashion, there is too little redemption in this brutality to warrant a second viewing.