Friday, January 10, 2014

August: Osage County

Review by Pamela Zoslov

Every time I think I can't bear to see Meryl Streep in another movie, she surprises me with her transporting skill. As Violet Weston, the pill-addicted matriarch at the center of Tracy Letts' AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY, Streep sinks her incisors into the role and works it with savage precision. It is exactly what's called for by the play, a dark comedy that won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and has now been adapted, by the playwright, for the screen.

I have a similar aversion to Julia Roberts, whose familiarity can make it impossible to see her as anyone but Julia Roberts. But as Barbara, Violet's daughter, Roberts takes the tough-minded character firmly in hand . She may be a bit too refined-looking to have emerged from the rural Okie home where the story takes place, but her performance, a vehement match for Streep's, compensates. The casting of well-known stars in roles made famous by less known stage actors is, I guess, a necessary part of adapting plays (box office, you know.). In this case, the casting choices are good, even though we're never for a moment unaware that we're watching movie stars.

The story takes place in the home of Beverly and Violet Weston outside Pawhuska, Oklahoma. Beverly, played by the playwright/actor Sam Shepard, interviews a young Native American woman, Johnna (Misty Upham, from FROZEN RIVER) for a housekeeping job. Johnna's task, explains Beverly, a once-famous poet, will be to look after him and his wife in their depressingly dark house. “She takes pills and I drink,” he says matter-of-factly. Violet enters, spaced out on pills and absent her customary dark wig, her hair shorn very short. She provokes a foul-mouthed argument with her husband. Violet, we learn, is suffering from mouth cancer, the metaphoric value of which is (too) obvious.

This opening scene makes the play's literary aspirations clear. Beverly quotes T.S. Eliot and gives Johnna a book of poetry; the play's  title is taken from a poem by Howard Starks. Poetic and literary references abound, but overall the dialogue is more "Tobacco Road" than Eugene O'Neill. Violet is reminiscent of Mary Tyrone, the morphine-addicted matron in that great American play, O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night. Like Mary, Violet wanders about the house in a fugue, engaging in long, foggy reminiscences. While Mary's memories are of her idealized convent girlhood,Violet's are of a horribly abusive upbringing. Violet is vicious, and she uses her intoxication as an excuse to eviscerate family and friends, sometimes in ways that are gratifyingly honest (“I'm just tellin' the truth,”), and sometimes plain cruel. In her confusion and grief, rather than playing the piano like Mary Tyrone, Violet drops a record player needle on, of all things, Eric Clapton's “Lay Down Sally,” and dances pathetically, hands dangling limply in front of her.

Beverly leaves the scene early on, taking the play's literary tone with him. His five-day disappearance and subsequent drowning is the occasion for the gathering of the couple's children, Barbara, Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) and Karen (Juliette Lewis, captivating in the small role), along with Violet's sister Mattie Fae and her browbeaten husband, Charlie (Margo Martindale and Chris Cooper, both good) and their intellectually challenged adult son, called Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch, now seemingly mandatory casting for all movies). Also in tow are Karen's shady fiancé Steve, Barbara's estranged husband Bill (Ewan MacGregor) and the couple's precocious 14-year-old daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin).

For the film, directed by John Wells, the play was trimmed from three hours to 130 minutes, eliding a number of scenes. Left intact, of course, is the famous dinner scene, in which Violet does her most excoriating “truth-telling.” The assembled family make nasty fun of teenage Jean's vegetarianism (her claim that ingesting meat means “eating fear”), and Barbara's political correctness (insisting on “Native American” rather than “Indian”). Violet's freewheeling candor — “some people are antagonized by the truth,” she declares — provokes a violent fight with Barbara, who is determined to get her mom off drugs. The fight is entirely justified; Violet is deliberately provocative, a monster who boasts of her addiction to a pharmacopeia of apills, which she calls her “best friends.” Nearly as gratifying is the scene in which Barbara confronts Dr. Burke (Newell Alexander), the prescriber of said pills. Barbara throws pills in his face and threatens legal action, something many prescription-happy docs deserve.

What follows are more arguments, ridicule and scandalous revelations, including illegitimate births and incest. The play is a funny, lurid crowd-pleaser, but it offers scant insight into the family's particular pathology — pace Tolstoy, "...each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Violet spits out a story about Beverly's impoverished childhood — he and his family lived in a car for years — that's no more believable than Violet's recollection of being attacked by her mother's lover with a claw hammer. Some of these things could happen in a family, but all of them? And since we're asking, how did award-winning  poet Beverly spawn this white-trash clan?

Letts has a good way with dialogue, but he's less successful in drawing meaning from this rank familial stew. Unlike in O'Neill's play, it isn't clear how the sins of the parents affected the children, except that the daughters are generally troubled. There's Ivy, the one who stayed close to home and now wants to run off with her cousin; Barbara, the hard woman who longs for the return of her straying husband; and frivolous, self-centered Karen, so determined to get married that she turns a blind eye to her fiancé's sleazy behavior.

This is primarily an actors' film, and the main reason to see it is for its extra-juicy performances. 3 out of 4 stars.

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