AFI 2013 Review: August: Osage County
August: Osage County can be a very difficult film to watch because it is about some truly horrible people being awful to each other. I have to admire the balls it takes to do that in an industry that’s so hung up on likability. That doesn’t mean I like the experience, but I acknowledge how it made me feel and how it achieved that.
Barbara Weston (Julia Roberts) returns to her childhood home with her husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) and daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin), where her mother Violet Weston (Meryl Streep) is suffering from cancer and an addiction to prescription pills. When patriarch Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard) is discovered dead, the funeral brings more of the family together.
The first half of August: Osage County is a relentless onslaught of Violet criticizing her entire family. They say it’s witty, and playwright/screenwriter Tracy Letts won the Pulitzer for the August: Osage play, but I don’t know if it’s witty so much as I can’t believe someone would put this much thought into clever ways to degrade someone else. Streep relishes the role, flirting with camp, and can you believe America’s sweetheart Julia Roberts said “vagina?”
Really it’s The Fockers, or at least a highbrow Fockers I guess, only they don’t have the excuse of doing it to make us laugh. The Westons are abusing each other with especially articulate ways of making their loved ones feel inferior. I heard some people in the audience laugh at some of Violet and Barbara’s, uh, barbs at each other, but more than 50% of the audience was with me, quietly uncomfortable, as intended. I hope that’s what was intended. If you’re supposed to enjoy seeing people abused, I’d have serious reservations about Letts, but even more about an audience that would delight in bullying no matter how cleverly worded it is.
The psychology of Violet is pretty obvious. Her family keeps enabling her by placating her every demand. When she insists they wear jackets for lunch in a sweltering dining room, it may seem like the easiest way to shut her up but it only empowers her to criticize something else. And make no mistake, Violet is not requesting respectful attire. She is insulting you for being slovenly, and you are validating her by acquiescing.
The drugs certainly inflame Violet’s naturally abrasive tendencies, and one might empathize with her medical condition, but it’s clear even before it comes out in the film that Violet led a life of disappointments and pain for which she is lashing out. It is unfortunate that she never overcame her trauma in some 60-70 years of life. She only became bitter.
Barbara bears a lot of Violet’s rage because she actually got the hell out of there when she was old enough to. There’s meddling and enabling each other going on, but at least Barbara has the strength to defend herself. Poor Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) just stayed home to take care of Violet and bears it silently, letting it eat away at her. You think you like Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale) because Margo Martindale is so lovable, but then when her son Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch) enters the film she lashes out at him horribly.
Even the “good” characters are hypocrites. Violet criticizes Jean and her parents don’t defend her. Then the rest of the family, even the seemingly reasonable Charles (Chris Cooper), join in ridiculing Jean’s values. Jean is a vegetarian. That’s not for everyone, but it’s certainly not a fringe belief or something of which an Osage family shouldn’t be aware. Charles has a vital moment standing up to Mattie Fae later, but I hope you didn’t forget how horrible he was to Jean.
After that epic dining room scene, the film calms down and becomes a bit more civil. If this is supposed to be the Westons’ redemption, I’m not down with that, but I don’t think it is that simple. The film is asking us not to judge the Westons, and it’s really pushing our limits of not judging, especially with Ivy and Little Charles, who you’d think would be the most sympathetic characters. The structure of the story very interestingly winds up to a boiling point, and then rather than resolve, it completely unravels. Not as in the plot unravels because the developments are layered in expertly… the Westons unravel.
I am especially sensitive to watching psychological abuse, but it is real and it must be worth exploring, if only to show people suffering from it that they’re not alone and there’s a way out. August: Osage County does it with wit and drama, though maybe not funny “ha ha” wit. You do get to see Julia Roberts curse out Meryl Streep. There’s an event movie for you and they didn’t even have to spend millions on CGI!