August: Osage County wants to have its casserole and smash it too.

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August: Osage County dir. John Wells

Anyone with a mildly dysfunctional family knows this well.  A Christmas, new year, birth or otherwise rolls around; the relatives swoop in from interstate.  No matter how petty or monumental the schism of the last meet, you can still hear its echo.  Mild insults are deployed.  Those who brought the largest vehicles are urged to carry heirlooms and disused furniture home.  Sooner or later the venom overflows, and vitriol is spat.  Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

Who can tell what the Weston family get up to each Christmas.  It’s summery August when Beverly (Sam Shepherd), a writer, disappears from his anachronistic homestead in that Midwest locale where the plains sear and the orchestral strings section hums with faux pensiveness. His wife, the cancer-stricken, apoplectically pill-happy Violet (Queen Streep) invokes her three daughters and their three sort-of partners to abate her loneliness.  One by one they descend upon the house and receive their venom; rebut and/or rebuke.  Eventually the table is set, and then the real histrionics begin.

“Life is very long,” Beverly quotes T S Eliot in the film’s opening moments.  You could swap out ‘Life’ for ‘The path to the Oscars’, and both lines of verse would have August to a tee.  There’s no storyline so much as a handful of characters whose contrivances are hardwired to polarise and ricochet off one another.  Divorce – check.  “Back in my day…” – check.  The cousin who misses the interstate bus to Sam’s funeral, but is still organised enough to turn up to Violet’s doorstep with a casserole dish in hand.  You can bet that’ll turn up later.  Check, and – smash – check.  For a film set in the American South, homosexuality is beguilingly absent, but the film finds plenty of topicality in Barbara’s (Julia Roberts) random alluding to Native Americans.

I suppose this kind of excess-on-anomic-excess is typical for a stage play whose every minutiae strives towards the histrionic (and I can’t speak for the cohesion of the source text).  In August, which is adapted from Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer-winning play, the same histrionics are barely reworked, even if the medium is altogether different.  Where an Asghar Farhadian domestic melodrama would tune the same overbearing script down, let the conflict slowly build and the characters’ flaws and forgivings unravel, August dives so eagerly into its en-masse airing of dirtied laundries that it forgets to give us all that much reason to care for its sardine tinned characters in the first place. When each one eventually takes their leave from the Weston estate, most character progression is buried amid a cacophony of shouting.

Which inevitably leads to the awkward haphazardness of a film that takes itself more seriously than its audience ever will (See: Lee Daniels’ The Butler).  Add to this the sense that August is trying to inherit the sardonicism of its stage version, and the whole thing turns into a claustrophobic mess.  There are too many actors, too many half-aired home truths and too many windows left too damn closed.  It’s so bloated a mix of strained seriousness and over-acting that all you can do is laugh along in anaerobic delirium at its contrived, campy excess.  Then, when you’re sure it’s settled on comedy, the piano clunks into gear and somebody tears off into the sunset or paddock in a blaze of dust and Bon Iver.  And that’s what I think is most preposterous about August: Osage County: for a film that finds most of its pleasure in voyeuristically watching its characters squirm beneath Violet’s insults sans redemption, it still has the gall to vie for empathetic repeal.

Among the movie’s highlights are Julianne Nicholson’s comparatively quiet if under-written Ivy, and the Native American Johnna (Misty Upham).  In all respects Johnna’s a wallflower, designed to give cardboard support to Barbara’s brief mentions of Native Americans, as well as step in, just once, at a crucial moment. At the very least, then, like the recurrent candid shots of plains on the ol’ prairie, her character lets some oxygen into the homestead – even if it’s a homestead whose very design is to stamp out subtler performances.

Oh, the performances are great though. Weren’t they something? Storyline drags a little, but the performances were something else. And the catfish!  August has the acting hallmark its star-fangled cast-list should necessarily pertain to, yes, but it also has a script manufactured with the sole intent of eliciting them.  It’s not necessarily that the characters aren’t believable so much as their actions to one another are preposterous.  Who on Earth – family, county sheriff, or otherwise – would watch their cancerous and over-medicated septuagenarian mother wobble deliriously to her vinyl player without interjecting? August is so disinterested its characters’ catharses that it can’t even muster a decent conclusion for most of them; after all, why have nuance or compromise when you can hot-wire your Oscar candidacy via shouting.

But for a film that, from one perspective, sees its characters answer the lonely adjuration of their drug-addled mother, vaguely invoke suing the medical board before flushing her over-stocked medicine cabinet and vanishing, August’s ending is self-righteous as hell.

“I thought we were having a funeral dinner, not a cockfight,” Violet says.  In August, she gets both, then ends up with nothing at all.

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