“Don’t get all Carson McCullers on me,” Barbara says at one point in August: Osage County (2013). I wish the movie had. This movie is like bad McCullers, all eccentricity and operatic flamboyance, and while McCullers was similarly devoid of meaning, she had a way of making the longing for human connection profound. August: Osage County makes that longing a punch line.
Welcome to the Weston family, a bog of mean and monstrous behavior, a swamp of secrets, lies and distrust, a slow cooker simmering with insults and bad manners. Often you look at dysfunctional families and say “they deserve each other;” no one deserves these people. The movie makes it seem like a tragedy that they can’t stay together; the tragedy is that they have to see each other as often as they do. The latest family reunion is over the death of Beverly (Sam Shepard), the patriarch of the madhouse, an alcoholic poet who remains the moral center of the movie simply because he has the least amount of screen time. After decades of being married to Violet (Meryl Streep), Beverly walks out the front door one day and never comes back, leaving Violet with the Cheyenne housekeeper he’s just hired, Johnna (Misty Upham). Soon the extended family descends on Osage County, Oklahoma, to be with Violet and worry about Beverly who, before long, is found dead, presumably having drowned himself.
The mourners include Beverly and Violet’s three daughters: saintly Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), who stayed in the area and had become the presumed caretaker; flighty, ditsy Karen (Juliette Lewis), who flew the coop for Florida where she presides over a carousel of the wrong kind of men (this moment’s iteration is Steve [Dermot Mulroney], a sleazy operator who makes a lot of promises); and bitter Barbara (Julia Roberts), gone for Colorado where her marriage to Bill (Ewan McGregor) is falling apart because of his infidelity. They have a daughter, Jean (Abigail Breslin), whose moodiness is understandable because she’s 14 and she has lengthy exposure to this family. Also among the funeral party are Violet’s sister, Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale), and her henpecked husband, Charlie (Chris Cooper), who are soon joined by their son, Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch), called “Little” despite being in this 40s, a simple fool who missed the funeral because he forgot to set his alarm clock. When the band is all together again, Violet decides to let them all have it one by one at the lunch table.
What Violet calls honesty is truly mean attacks about every aspect of each of her family members. Barbara is a sneak-thief for leaving town and abandoning the family, but Ivy is weak and is settling for staying put. She calls all three of her girls ugly at some point and attacks their husbands and beaus while insinuating that better wives and girlfriends would have attracted better men or made the men they have better. The whole family takes turns on a wheel of cruelty, laughing at young Jean’s vegetarianism, mocking each other throatily and happily. This meal scene, which is the centerpiece of the movie, is also its emotional center, and the moment that the audience realizes we don’t care if these people get along or not—as long as they get out of our lives soon enough.
Don’t blame the dialogue. The movie is based on a Pulitzer-prize winning play by Tracy Letts (who wrote the screenplay), about motherly dictatorship and emasculation, and the words sizzle and pop, especially when delivered well by a good cast, but they don’t amount to much. Take the lunch scene, which should be the highlight but remains the low point. The scene drags, it’s overdone, it doesn’t know when to end. This may be acceptable on a stage, when there’s a little more artifice, but under the realism of the screen with real locations, a real outside, real cars these people could really get into and leave, we don’t buy that they would sit there and be attacked this way. My own flight instinct flared up just watching it; where was theirs? In contrast, the best scene is a quiet one between the three daughters over a glass of wine, which doesn’t include any witty jabs or memorable lines but feels genuine.
More so, despite the fireworks and bravado, there’s something muted about the production, something small, as if nobody knew how to take a play to the movies. The direction by John Wells is weak, electing to try to get out of the way of his actors but failing to recognize when they get out of control. This leaves us with a mess of noise that doesn’t reinforce the dysfunction of the family, only our unpleasant experience with them. When Wells does make choices, they are the wrong ones. The character of Johnna, the Native American housekeeper, is problematic anyway: She’s hired by a self-described drunk who tells her that the woman of the house is a nasty pill-popper and Violet proves it during the interview and Johnna takes the job anyway, then she watches these walking nightmares go at each other (and ignore or dismiss her), and she does it with a smile on her face and concern in her heart when nearly anyone else would have had better things to do a long time ago. But Wells emphasizes her with an ending that is absolutely wrong: simple-minded and borderline offensive that boils down to a pandering message that Indians are magic and their healing powers are total. It’s the worst kind of TV ending, a mealy-mouthed stab at sentiment that manages to sabotage the weakly constructed point of view of the rest of the movie.
So the movie is a cluttered cacophony of actors run amok, and despite the number of stars, the casting is uneven, with some of the performances better than others. The standouts are Martindale, Nicholson, Shepard (who gives the best turn with limited screen time), and especially Roberts, whose angry loathing is done mainly with her face. She seems like a person who could have been warm if things had gone differently but now that chance is over. When she does let the words be her weapon, she earns that as well, fully deserving of the nickname Barb, punching the head with one hand while the other twists a knife to the stomach. Among the ones who don’t fare that well, there’s a mixture of miscasting, ones being in over their heads (Breslen) or apathetic (McGregor and Cooper seem bored and Cooper botches what could have been a masterpiece of uncomfortable humor in saying grace at lunch, which becomes an uncomfortable bore instead). Cumberbatch is way off as a sad-sack loser; his abilities are much better suited for cocksure sophistication (by the way, his idiot character of Little Charles is the kind that McCullers would have made great, but here he’s a milquetoast afterthought). As for Streep, she fits into a different category altogether, neither good nor bad. Make no mistake, her performance isn’t effective; the restraint that Roberts shows is nowhere to be found and that makes her vitriol-belching mommie dearest a cartoon, but she has the most incendiary dialogue and there is something satisfying in watching her chew it to gristle.
And you have to take these little satisfactions when you can. With so much noise in every direction, the story doesn’t move along; it drifts without a rudder. This makes it hard to get too engaged when all the secrets come out. Nothing works well for very long, nothing comes easily, and nothing seems to be going to any fixed point. With a guide to take it where it should have gone (or anywhere), it might have been great, but as it is, it’s just lost, whipping its head about, wondering what to do now.