Meryl Streep Kicks a lot of Ass (And Tracy Letts is Authentic)

I thought about calling this movie review, “Review of August: Osage County” but that’s just not attention grabbing enough for a movie that grabs you by the balls and doesn’t let go for the first 20 minutes. After that, you have a little time to compose yourself and maybe doze off before things pick up again at the most authentic scene I have seen in movie history, at the dining table.

When the film starts, the sun bakes the naked plains through the opening credits with some fitting but forgettable music. The curtain is pulled and your eyes get rest on the profile of Beverly Weston played by Sam Shepard sipping and holding a neat whiskey in a dark, musky room as he “sets the stage” for the oncoming actors by interviewing and hiring the new Native American live-in cook and caregiver Johnna, played by Misty Upham.

The alcoholic poet attempts to soothe the mouth of his cancer-riddled drug addict wife, Violet, as she stumbles down the stairs spewing insults and abuse to the only two others on the stage. The scene changes and we realize that Beverly has disappeared and Violet calls her sister Mattie Fae and her husband Charles, played by Margo Martindale and Chris Cooper. She also calls her three daughters. Ivy, played by Julianne Nicholson, is the youngest and the first to arrive as she lives locally. Barbara is the oldest and the next to arrive with her daughter and separated husband, played by Ewan McGregor and Abigail Breslin. Julia Roberts, who has already been nominated for several awards for her role, played her. Juliette Lewis, who played middle daughter Karen, arrives with Dermot Mulroney who plays her new fiancé Steve Heidebrecht.

While that was jarring and interesting to watch, it took another 45 minutes or so to build up my interest again as the other cast members join the set. Finally, the funeral is over, and Charles picks up Little Charles from the bus station, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, who misses the funeral for oversleeping.

The scene at the dinner after the funeral was hard to watch, but the peak of my interest throughout the movie. Violet, an intelligent and extremely observant character, loves a good fight and is vicious to everyone present. The only person that she treats with respect in the dinner scene if not the entire film is the only person who ever wronged her- her sister Mattie Fae who she knows had an affair with her husband.

The scene starts with members of the family taking their spots around the table. Violet, now sitting at the head of the table while chain smoking, commands her guests who have already begun to eat, “I see you gentlemen have all stripped down to your shirt fronts. I thought we were having a funeral dinner, not a cockfight.” She initially asks Barbara to pray, but in good southern fashion, changes her mind to the now patriarch of the family, Charles. The prayer is kind and gentle, but like any good prayer, it wouldn’t be complete without the judgment of his family as you watch their faces critique the merits of the prayer. The dinner escalates in movement and volume as she picks apart the darkest secrets of each person around the table until Barbara snaps and recruits her sisters in an intervention where they flush all of her medication.

Though Violet may be the worst on set, the story was interesting in that not a single character was a decent human being besides Johnna, Charles and perhaps Little Charles, though they each have their own vices.

Before I saw it, I had seen that Meryl Streep was nominated at the Golden Globes. While Streep is a brilliant actress, I was hoping that this movie wouldn’t impress me, because I’m tired of her constant, yet merited, nominations for every part she plays.

After seeing this, she deserves it. She outperformed every other actor including her co-nominee Julia Roberts. Everyone else performed wonderfully, at the level I was expecting. The star-studded ensemble obviously had great talent and performance- but the connection just was not there, and that seemed to be the point. Violet Weston is the character we were all there to see.

Streep’s particularly command performance appropriately exposes the intricate complexities of the drug-addled brain of an abused and extremely selfish cancer patient. Her delivery of dialogue dramatic, almost overacting, bodily gestures kick a lot of ass.

Even without Meryl Streep, this movie screams authenticity. Costumes were well chosen, fit for a funeral setting in northern Oklahoma. It was interesting how none of the women really wear makeup except for Violet Weston because in August in Oklahoma, you probably wouldn’t wear makeup. Violet’s wig cracked me up because whenever she got into a tizzy you could always see it start to slide of her head. She did not have the cap on over her hair, so she obviously did not care that much about her appearance. The set was as authentic as a house on the plains as you can get. Apart from the credits, the movie is visually dark, scenes set in dark rooms or at night. The music was authentic but almost unnecessary since the most important aspect of the film was the dialogue and interactions between characters.

However, the most important authenticity was the authenticity of the dialogue. As Barbara puts it, this isn’t the Midwest, this is the plains. Authentic is what you’d expect from Screenwriter Tracy Letts, who was born and raised in Oklahoma before moving to Dallas and from there, Chicago. He’s a man familiar with the people of the Plains, having been nominated for two Pulitzer’s for his works Man from Nebraska and August: Osage County. The man has a Screen Actor’s Guild Award nomination and a Pulitzer nomination and has won two Tony’s, a Drama Desk Award and a Pulitzer.

Interesting how they adapted a play into a movie because you could tell that it was a play first. Most of the film occurs within two rooms of their house. The brilliantly adapted screenplay by the original playwright keeps some important elements of stage direction with monologues and soliloquies that would typically allow for a set change. Scenes are long, and the movie appears to be written in acts like the original play. When a scene change does occur, a character is off-screen with enough time to allow for a “costume change.” It was also interesting that each person leaves the film in the order of a traditional curtain call- leaving the audience wanting to stand up in the theater and give Streep a standing-o. Finally, director John Wells maintains the intricacies and theatrics of a live performance.

The movie, labeled a dark comedy, was funny- but the comedic relief did not leave you feeling any better at the end. The dark humor does not lift your spirits, and though while you can laugh in the movie, after leaving the theater, the comedy goes away and it is just dark. When the film ends, you see Julia Roberts staring off into the plains of Osage County, all alone, and you thank god that you had someone to share in that misery with. The characters were well developed and you leave the theater with a horrible view of the world.