August: Osage County

Christian Podgaysky reviews Redbox films for Southport Magazine.

Christian Podgaysky, Southport Magazine’s film correspondent, reviews movies currently in Redbox vending machines—perfect for a rainy day.

“August: Osage County”

Four Stars
Directed by: John Wells
Starring: Meryl Streep, Dermot Mulroney, Julia Roberts, Chris Cooper, Ewan McGregor
 

The film welcomes audiences to Osage County, Oklahoma. Three sisters and a handful of other relatives gather in grief. Over the course of the days following the funeral, secrets are revealed and resentments are uncovered.

Having seen the Broadway production of “August: Osage County,” I was intrigued to assess how it would translate to screen. The dark dramedy follows the dissolution of the Weston family, perpetuated by the disappearance and eventual death of the family’s patriarch, Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard).

The onstage rendering showcased an intimate, claustrophobic set that perfectly set the scene for the struggles of the Weston family. For the most part, the film effectively pulls off the transition from stage to screen. Early scenes drag as they maintain much from the original play—a consequence of American audiences’ conditioning toward faster-paced cuts. As well, the ability to leave the confines of the Weston estate undermines the direness of the family’s implosion; however, Meryl Streep’s performance as the overbearing, antagonizing matriarch, Violet Weston, more than makes up for this loss. The ability to profile her at angles that accentuate her tyrannical nature, plus her stellar emotive abilities lend their hand in catapulting her erratic behavior to the forefront.

As well, the satiation of the frame, which captures the warm, golden-brown hues of a Midwestern summer, effectively express the suffocating heat, paralleling the Westons’ descent into chaos. From the very first images of open, unpopulated plains, viewers even in the darkest of air-conditioned rooms are transported to a world steeped with torment. The stickiness of the sweat, expertly depicted by hair and make-up, shines through augmenting the characters’ feelings of desperation.
DELIGHTFUL DYSFUNCTION: Violet Weston (Meryl Streep), Barbara (Julia Roberts), and Ivy Weston (Julianne Nicholson) emote with film-friendly subtlety.

DELIGHTFUL DYSFUNCTION: Violet Weston (Meryl Streep), Barbara (Julia Roberts), and Ivy Weston (Julianne Nicholson) emote with film-friendly subtlety.

Character portrayals come with authenticity and a refreshing subtlety that juxtapose the over-the-top theatrics carried over from the stage. Streep’s voice and mannerisms are coated with the ferocity of an aging pill-popper. While many of Violet’s histrionic tantrums make their way to the film, Streep and director John Wells handle it in a way that doesn’t come ad nauseam.

However, the film’s vulgarity at times feels a bit much. In the context of a theatre production a slew of repeated four-letter words help keep audiences on their toes. Conversely, its use in a film, where the camera dictates the audience’s attention, grates against the eardrums, feeling gratuitous.
Aside from Streep, Margo Martindale successfully brings the lovable yet insufferable Mattie Fae Aikin to life. Hiding a few secrets of her own, Martindale seamlessly renders poor, fat Aunt Mattie. By effect, her third act divulgement of a key plot point becomes all the more effective.
As well, Julia Roberts’ interpretation of the strong, jaded and somewhat self-righteous Barbara Weston delights. Her chemistry with onscreen mother Violet generates a film-long battle that keeps audiences’ interest piqued. They go head-to-head with quick, combative exchanges that leave viewers feeling as uncomfortable as the characters surrounding them. The post-funeral dinner scene revels in an intricate balance of humor, which puts viewers at ease, before it culminates in a cringeworthy screaming match.
The rest of the cast, too, give performances that ground the Weston family’s strains in believability. “Little Miss Sunshine” actress Abigail Breslin—playing Jean Barbara Weston’s bratty daughter—seems the only actor whose performance lacks. This primarily results from the writing. The film minimizes her presence in the film, leaving her teenage-angst feeling minute in comparison to the larger conflicts explored. Her iteration of Jean constitutes nothing but a pale, pouty face with intermittent eye-rolls.
Ultimately, the film thrives due to its attention to detail. From the light gray streaks in Julia Robert’s hair to the drab color palette of the wardrobe, everything serves to highlight the hopelessness of this family. Despite generating a production that prospers in intense scenes, only separated by bits of lighter fare, the film’s conclusion somewhat undermines the film’s efforts. The stage production ends one scene earlier in an unrelenting moment of heartbreak. However, the inclusion of the extra scene takes viewers from the imprisonment of the Weston home creating an almost hopeful sentiment, completely subverting the skillfully crafted sense of despair.
Despite a few flaws, “August: Osage County” flourishes as a film. It utilizes tools afforded by film to accentuate the themes of disillusionment present in the play. Brilliant performances permeate the screen and production design triumphs. The film proves an immaculately stylized character study that doesn’t disappoint.

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