Just got back from a week’s vacation, and the timing couldn’t have been better. I came back the day before this year’s Oscar nominees were announced, so I returned to my favorite multiplexes just in time to see the New Year’s cinematic doldrums in full effect. I can’t explain it, but I get a strange kind of pleasure to see legitimately good awards-season latecomers settle in and mask the stink from The Legend of Hercules.
In any other time of year, yet another butchered adaptation of Greek mythology might’ve been prominent enough that I’d have to review it. Glad that bullet was dodged. Then again, it bears mentioning that my first choice of Oscar-nominated movies this year was August: Osage County. In hindsight, I don’t know if I was that much better off.
This film is about the Weston family, hailing from the eponymous Oklahoma county. Our story begins when the patriarch (Beverly Weston, played by Sam Shepard) kills himself in a drunken stupor, causing the family to reunite and mourn his passing. There really isn’t much more of a plot beyond that; things just sort of spiral out of control until the credits finally start rolling.
The matriarch is Violet Weston, played by Meryl Streep. She was recently diagnosed with mouth cancer, which she uses as an excuse to take all the prescription meds she can choke down. Her impossibly bad drug addiction, coupled with her advanced age and her terminal illness, already made her enough of a rampaging mess. Throw in grief over her husband’s death, and she’s going to fuck up every random thing for no reason whatsoever.
Bev and Violet had three daughters, all of whom show up here. Ivy Weston (Julianne Nicholson) is the only one of the three who stayed in Oklahoma to watch the parents. She claims to have a boyfriend, but refuses to talk about him. Conversely, sister Karen Weston (Juliette Lewis) moved to Miami and got engaged to an obnoxious businessman named Steve Heidebrecht (Dermot Mulroney). The third sister is Barbara Weston-Fordham (Julia Roberts), who came in from Colorado with her ex-husband (Bill Fordham, played by Ewan McGregor) and their teenaged daughter (Jean Fordham, played by Abigail Breslin). Bill, by the way, is apparently in the process of leaving Barbara for a much younger woman whom we never meet.
Elsewhere in the family, we have Violet’s sister. Mattie Fae Aiken (Margo Martindale) is the typical aunt who gossips so incessantly that she probably doesn’t even know how to spell “TMI.” She’s married to Charles Aiken (Chris Cooper), who’s struggling to find his place as the new de facto patriarch. They have a son together, name of “Little” Charles Aiken (Benedict Cumberbatch), who seems to be the runt of the litter.
Last but not least is Johnna (Misty Upsham), who is not related to any of the aforementioned characters. She’s a young Native American woman who was hired by Beverly just before his death, and continues to serve as housekeeper throughout the movie.
On paper, this seems like an entertaining picture. We’ve got a family full of colorful characters, all played by extraordinary actors, and they’re all placed under one roof to hash out their problems. What could possibly go wrong? Well, it’s not an easy thing to describe.
Let me give you an example. In the trailer, we see the family sitting around their dinner table as Charles gives a long-winded speech to say grace. What the trailer doesn’t show you is that the speech goes on for something like five minutes. It isn’t funny, it isn’t entertaining, it has absolutely no point, it’s just long-winded and duller than dogshit.
Another example, also from the trailer: There’s a scene in which Barb and Violet are debating the label of “Native American.” “They’re not any more Native American than I am!” says Violet. “Why don’t we just call the dinosaurs Native American?” Again, that line is totally worthless. It’s not funny, it’s not interesting, it doesn’t tell us anything about the character that we don’t already know, the line just sits there doing nothing. That line could be cut from the film entirely without any consequence.
One last example, and this one isn’t from the trailer: There’s a scene in which Steve leans in to smell something on Jean. The teenaged girl, understandably, backs away. Then Steve asks if she’s been smoking pot. Not to accuse her or anything, he just has a pot stash handy and wants someone to smoke it with. Though this exchange does make sense in context, it still isn’t any kind of entertaining or interesting. It’s just kinda disgusting to watch.
Then we have “Little” Charles, who gets saddled with all the most impossibly wretched plot points in this movie. Every time I thought this movie couldn’t possibly jump the shark any higher, we get some other shocking revelation about “Little” Charles and the movie finds a new way to crash harder. Every time. Like clockwork.
To sum up, these characters are all terrible human beings who are awful to be around at the best of times. So when they start throwing verbal abuse at each other and squabbling as they do through most of the running time, it’s flat fucking atrocious. There’s no enjoyment or humor to be found in their bickering, nor is there any worthwhile thematic depth. It’s not even depressing, because that would mean I had some degree of sympathy for the characters. It was just so awkward to watch that I wanted to be anywhere else.
But here’s the thing that makes it complicated: I still couldn’t bring myself to hate any of the characters. See, the characters don’t fail because they’re broken. The characters work perfectly fine… and they still fail.
Try to imagine being on a plane (or a bus, or in some other enclosed space) with a baby who won’t stop crying loudly. On the one hand, you can’t reasonably be angry with a baby for crying. You can’t blame a baby for crying, you can’t ask a baby to stop crying, and you can’t expect the baby to know any better. This is what it is, and this is what it does. On the other hand, this knowledge doesn’t stop everyone within earshot from trying to think of something else as they silently pray with all their might for the yelling to cease.
That’s exactly how I felt while watching this movie. The characters are all fucked up in legitimate ways, and they yell at each other for legitimate reasons. I could understand who these characters were and why they were so upset with each other. Yet that doesn’t make it any less uncomfortable or unpleasant when we’re caught in the middle of umpteen shouting matches. Without the ability to walk away or shout for everyone to calm down, I might add.
What makes the film even more insufferable is that there’s no plot. None. There’s no greater conflict to be solved and no clear thematic agenda to be played out. Without a worthwhile plot or a solid theme, there’s no point. And if there’s no point, then why are we watching these characters scream at each other?
For comparison’s sake, consider The Ref. There’s another (highly underrated) movie about relatives who all get together for a hearty round of shouting matches, yet that movie succeeds where this one fails. For one thing, that movie had a plot. There was an overarching conflict about a fugitive thief to keep things moving at a good clip. For another thing, that movie was actually funny. Between the sharp jokes and the heightened tone, the film delivered some fantastic comedy without the pretense of drama or deeper meaning. Thirdly — and perhaps more importantly — that movie had an outside observer (Denis Leary’s character) to help give us a more focused perspective on the action. Sure, this movie has Johnna, but the film makes so little use of her that she dreadfully fails to serve this purpose.
Also, The Ref never even hinted at incest. That puts it several notches above Osage County, in my opinion.
So, getting back to my original question, where did this movie go wrong? It’s tempting to say that the cast is the problem, since they all chew through scenery like Christmas dinner, but come on. A cast this talented can’t be entirely to blame. Another possible candidate is Tracy Letts, here adapting the script from his Pulitzer-winning play, yet that doesn’t hold water either. Though the dialogue has some clunker lines, the characters are all wonderfully nuanced and developed. Plus, Letts previously wrote the screenplay for Killer Joe, which succeeded in a lot of places where this movie failed (making wretched characters entertaining to watch, for example).
No, I blame director John Wells, who made his feature directing debut three years ago with The Company Men, which came out to middling reviews and a worldwide gross of $4.8 million. To clarify: A movie with Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones, Kevin Costner, and Maria Bello, released by the Weinstein Brothers, with Roger fucking Deakins as the DOP, couldn’t even break the $5 million mark worldwide. It would be easy to blame failure of such magnitude on a variety of other factors (limited release, a crowded awards season, etc.), but maybe it’s just that Wells isn’t a very good filmmaker. Based on his second film, I’d say the latter explanation has some merit.
An adequate director for this film would have been able to balance the comedy and drama more efficiently, or at least be able to deliver one or the other in a more effective way. A good director might have been able to coax some decent performances out of his cast, thereby making the characters more sympathetic, instead of telling them all to swing for the cheap seats and hope that everything works out. Also, the decision to sideline Johnna instead of using her as a guide for the audience is a decision that can be traced straight back to the director. The rambling plot and the lack of a single coherent theme are other problems that might have been eased with someone more competent at the helm.
What makes this situation even more sad is that a more experienced filmmaker was right within arm’s reach. George Clooney is one of the listed producers, and I’d love to have seen what he could do with this material. Hell, his business partner — Grant Heslov, another of the film’s producers — has some experience directing, and he might have been a better choice than this.
To sum up, August: Osage County is pointless. The actors seem to be having a great time chewing scenery in these tortured and nuanced roles, but the audience is left drowning in so many mean-spirited arguments. It’s not funny enough to be a comedy, compelling enough to be a drama, thematically focused enough to be intelligent, or entertaining enough to be much of anything. The film is boring at best and outright disgusting at worst.
The only praise I can grant is that the film effectively sells the Weston family as a group of actual people. I came away from this movie feeling like I had met someone. And I really wish I hadn’t.