Dark family drama offers little enjoyment

August: Osage County, at least as presented by the trailers that were shown in movie theaters over the last few months, looks to have all the trappings of an “Oscar-bait” movie.

It has a cast composed of perennial awards-season favorites like Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts, respected character actors like Margo Martindale and Chris Cooper, and a few younger actors to make the film appeal to the whole family, in this case Benedict Cumberbatch and Abigail Breslin. It is adapted from the critically acclaimed and Tony-award winning play of the same name. Its plot centers around the dramatic reunion of a family that has grown apart over time. All of these statements are accurate descriptions of the film, but none of them capture how dark and cynical it actually is. This is a film that revels in unpleasantness and completely rejects the heartwarming moments that are the bread and butter of “Oscar-bait.” While I admire the film for resisting the temptation for sappy melodrama, it unfortunately goes too far in the opposite direction, becoming a cavalcade of misery with no deeper meaning.

The premise is simple enough: When the patriarch of an Oklahoma family (Sam Shepard) goes missing, his wife Violet (Streep) calls her family members back to their childhood home for the first time in years. Our central characters are Violet and her three daughters, played by Julia Roberts, Juliette Lewis and Julianne Nicholson, along with a bevy of supporting characters who each have their own unique relationships with the family. In fact, the family tree is maybe a little too complicated. It took me a good chunk of the movie to work out exactly who was related to whom and in what way. Still, that’s a minor nitpick, especially in the face of this enormous, and incredibly talented cast. You could easily shift three actors from this film into an entirely different movie, and it would be worth seeing on those names alone.

It’s a good thing the cast is so strong, as the two-hour running time doesn’t devote much time for character shading to anyone outside the central quartet. Everyone in the film does his or her best to suggest fully formed characters in his or her limited screentime, but the film’s overly expository dialogue does them little favors. Martindale and Ewan McGregor are particularly ill-served. They seem to exist only to suggest backstory and move the plot along. The main cast certainly has significantly more to do, but the film has an unfortunate tendency to make its performances as big as possible rather than offer emotional depth for these characters. Streep is the only one who really nails this tone, playing Violet as a woman with tremendous capacity for cruelty, but all the while suggesting a broken inner life behind her tirades.

Nicholson gives the film’s most impressive performance, displaying a quiet strength in the face of all the chaos around her, but that may just be because she is one of the few characters who isn’t asked to go over-the-top. Really, those quiet moments are when the film is at its best, when it allows its tremendously talented cast to suggest the rich history this family has rather than having them shout that history at each other.

I’ve danced around describing the plot, both because much of it revolves around characters’ secrets that I don’t want to spoil and also because the plotting is the most frustrating aspect of the film.

The basic story structure is quite simple and is actually the place where the film’s theatrical roots are most obvious. The first half of the movie slowly adds more and more characters, constantly hinting at the dark secrets each one hides in his or her past. This build up leads toward its centerpiece scene, where every character is crammed in at one dinner table.

From there, it reverses the process, pulling those characters apart and revealing all of their secrets. There’s something powerful about the simplicity of that structure, and the dinner scene is the place where the film best portrays its characters. Herein lies part of the movie’s universal resonance: The family members are constant snipes at each other are both entertaining and horrifying, but all of the story’s dramatic weight relies on those personal secrets. Unfortunately, the eventual reveal of those secrets falls short.

The issue here, and I’ll avoid going into specifics, is that the film is only interested in the moment of revelation. Each character has that one fact about his or her life that they don’t want anyone to know, and it inevitably is going to be revealed in the worst possible fashion. The film works very hard to make those revelations as unpleasant and difficult to watch as possible, but it never devotes any time to exploring any of the psychology related to those secrets. Questions of why those events happened in the first place or why they were kept secret are never approached.

More problematically, the film also has no interest in exploring how these revelations will impact its characters in the future. Once someone’s dirty laundry has been aired, they are shuffled offscreen with a line of perfunctory dialogue about what they will do next. Thus the movie becomes a series of dramatic confrontations with no real weight to them, which quickly grow tedious. Maybe on the stage this all worked better. Tracy Letts, adapting from her own play, had to make some cuts to fit everything into the script, and that condensation doesn’t allow the story much room to breathe.

As it stands, August: Osage County is something of a mess. There are some effective individual moments, and they come entirely from the strength of the performances, but there is little else about the film worth seeing.

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