August: Osage County, a terribly named film based on the slightly less poorly named play of the same name, recalls American Hustle. It overflows with talented actors acting up a storm in a cinematic structure that can’t contain them. Except August is much less fun.
The premise is as worn as a pair of old jeans: Family crisis precipitates a forced family “reunion” of sorts, resulting in clash, revelations, and hurt feelings. In this case, it’s the unexpected death of the family patriarch. That leaves his wife, their three daughters, their various menfolk (in various states of attachment and detachment) and an aunt and uncle. Thank God for the aunt and uncle, who are pretty much the only elements of this show that hold this centrifugal display of thespian efforts together.
The problem isn’t the actors, though only aunt (Margo Martindale) and uncle (the inestimable Chris Cooper) produce performances that genuinely connect with one another and the rest of the family, and are the only two who seem like flesh-and-blood characters. The problem is two-fold: the script and the direction.
The script is by the Tracey Letts, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play upon which the film is based. I have no idea if the play worked on stage. But not all great playwrights (and this is not making an assumption either way on Mr. Letts) make great screenwriters. All the sound and fury is here, but it signifies chaos. We see the anger, hear the foul language, and are privy to every blood-producing zinger known to man (or woman). To what purpose, other than providing a lot of good actors with scenery-chomping opportunities? Not sure.
The direction is no help. American Hustle’s problem is that the director seemed too in love with his actors. Perhaps August director John Wells (Company Men), who is known far more for his producing and writing than his directing, was simply afraid of them. It would be understandable. To call Meryl Streep a force of nature here would be inadequate. Her character is loud, vicious, sad, awful, indomitable, and any number of other adjectives. Ms. Streep is a brilliant technician—never more visible than in the cowboy boots remembrance scene—but the character seems more a mathematical construction of all the script’s opportunities than a fully felt monster.
Julia Roberts as one of the daughters is supposed to be something of a foil to Streep’s Violet. Roberts is generally a good actress, sometimes a very good one. Here she is very good, though the seething anger is a bit much at times. There’s no way she can match Streep for vitriol, however, and it’s less of a match of equals than a contest between the Big Bad Wolf and an angry Goldilocks who shouts a lot.
Benedict Cumberbatch as “little Charlie” provides the Brit with a bit of a challenge in the accent department, but is helping to prove that this versatile actor (Sherlock, Star Trek Into Darkness, 12 Years a Slave, The Fifth Estate) is turning into a Stanley Tucci, that is, an actor who can do almost anything. His character is a delicate balancing act, and he brings it off with grace. Normally reliable Ewan McGregor seems to spend his time trying too hard to nail his American accent and creating a character that is believably paired with Roberts’ (he’s more successful there, but it still strains credibility).
As already stated, Martindale and Cooper breathe some much needed life into the proceedings, but it’s Cooper who keeps the whole enterprise’s feet on the ground. Partly it’s who his character is in this family mess, but it’s also his interpretation of the role. You watch everyone else; you believe Cooper.
Everyone else is fine to quite good. Juliette Lewis in particular brings a damaged realism to her character, and Dermot Mulroney’s character made me want to take a shower after watching the film, which is a tribute to the performance.
Yet when all is said and done—or rather, shouted and smashed—the film doesn’t add up to the sum of its parts. It seems that neither the screenwriter nor the director knew what they wanted beyond a showcase for some of our most talented actors to screech their stuff (“strut” being too mild a word) in a cinematic bouillabaisse of fine individual ingredients that each retain their flavor but never quite blend together.