Thursday, January 9, 2014

Reunited and it feels so crude

The two most appealing characters in August: Osage County are, alas, barely in the movie, but they’re both in the first scene, in which poet and patriarch Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard) provides Johnna (Misty Upham), his new housekeeper, with some vital details regarding her employers’ sundry idiosyncrasies and preferred sources of inebriation, along with a volume of T.S. Eliot. Very soon after this exchange Beverly will disappear and all his adult children and their respective families will descend on the Weston’s sepulchral rural Oklahoma home. The ostensible purpose of this dysfunctional family reunion is to put collective wits together and discern where “old unfathomable dad” has run off to. Yet rather early in August you get the suspicion that what passes for story here is little more than a platform upon which a great deal of acting is to be displayed and admired. At least Johnna has something to read. She has her work cut out for her.

Headlining August’s august ensemble is Meryl Streep as Violent, Beverly’s wife and mother to his kids, a woman known for cruelty and garrulousness. She has cancer of the mouth, and while what exits her mouth may not actually be cancerous, it isn’t hard to imagine how extended exposure to her tirades may contribute to long-term illness. The excess of meds probably doesn’t help. She blitzed half the time and stoned the other half. Unsurprisingly, her kids (Julia Roberts, Juliette Lewis, Julianne Nicholson) don’t much like her, though they’ve got problems of their own, mostly involving men, one of whom is a first-cousin.

The script was adapted by Tracy Letts from his own play. There are intermittently riveting, venomous moments in the extended groups scenes which help those who haven’t seen August on stage (myself included) imagine its darky comic appeal. But the needless transitional scaffolding surrounding such moments dampens the impact and emphasizes the general air of phoniness. Letts’ characters invite the sort of expansive performances that might fill a theatrical space, but in a movie as deeply conventional as this one, they mostly come off as wearyingly showy. Streep is, to be sure, as fully immersed in this character as in anything she's done, but it’s rare to see her legendary chops used as such a blunt instrument.

August was helmed by television titan turned feature director John Wells, a tasteful ham, if you know what I mean. He takes a fundamentally middlebrow approach to material that pleads to be deeply unsettling. Where director William Friedkin was only too eager to exploit the grotesque in Letts (see Killer Joe), Wells seems not to have registered it at all. The cocktail of abuse, incest, racism, adultery, suicide and madness at the story’s core are softened at every turn. Wells clearly likes actors but fails to let them dominate; he overwhelms their work with inserts, reaction shots, ostentatiously poignant framing and, most of all, Gustavo Santaolalla’s gentle, deeply conventional musical score, which gets papered over anything that might have otherwise made us uneasy, such as Violet vomiting by the side of the road or the eerie deployment of Eric Clapton’s cheerful ‘Law Down Sally.’

It’s hardly a spoiler to say that the search for dad, like August as a whole, goes nowhere. (This, I think, is intentional.) There are some excellent moments, and Margo Martindale is very good as Violet’s sister, but mostly this is no country for nuanced performances or earned catharsis. You can’t really blame Beverly for walking away from it all.

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