Sunday, December 29, 2013

August: Osage County

Now, for the good stuff. 

Leave it to Tracy Letts, who wrote my favorite film of last year (“Killer Joe”), to deliver the crowd-pleaser in a December of overrated prestige pictures. In adapting his Pulitzer Prize-winning “August: Osage County” from stage to screen (and mercifully trimming an hour off the play’s three-hour runtime), Letts has given us, in the form of Meryl Streep, one of the most memorable and larger-than-life characters of the year in film: Violet Weston, the matriarch of a sprawling Oklahoma family that includes Vi’s sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale), brother-in-law Charles (Chris Cooper), nephew Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch), and Vi’s three daughters, Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), Karen (Juliette Lewis), and Barbara (Julia Roberts), as well as Barbara’s estranged husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) and daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin). Vi’s husband, Beverly (Sam Shepard), up and kills himself shortly after the movie begins, bringing the clan back to Pawhuska for the funeral and, shall we say, its aftermath.

Violet, who suffers from mouth cancer, has hidden enough pills around the house to stock a large pharmacy, and sneaks a handful whenever nobody’s looking. Despite her disease, Violet is an alpha woman who with her words and her will dominates all around her. She knows exactly what she wants and makes sure she gets it. She is capable at any moment of casual disdain or targeted disparagement. Some of the lines Mr. Letts has written for her are among the funniest of the movie year. Ms. Streep, who (like an injured NBA player leading the All-Star vote) seems to receive Oscar nominations even in years she hasn’t made a film, would richly deserve one for her work here. She has shown us delicacy and nuance over the decades; here, she brings the grandeur necessary to realize Letts’ vision of Violet. Truth is, we need towering characters to erect indelible presences in our movie memory – new ones, too. Though Matthew McConaughey and Streep find grace notes in Killer Joe and Violet Weston, they are creations of a writer with the courage to think big. How lucky we who love film will be if Letts brings us another such character every year (or five). 

Let me take a moment to respond to A.O. Scott’s review in the New York Times. Scott coined the amusing neologism “fracting” to describe the performances in “A.: O.C.” There are films at the Christmas cineplex full of needless noise, among them “American Hustle” and “The Wolf of Wall Street.” Most of the time, the voices in director John Wells’ film remain carefully modulated. Each of Vi’s daughters has chosen a different coping mechanism. Ivy has stayed on the farm to tend to Vi and Bev, adopting a posture of meek self-effacement. Karen got her ass out of Dodge; she lives in Florida and has a new fiancĂ© every year, the latest a scenester named Steve (Dermot Mulroney) who speeds into town in a flaming red sports car blasting Billy Squier’s “The Stroke.” Steve offers 14-year-old Jean a joint and puts the moves on her under the harvest moon. Karen’s distracted, vaguely touched manner is just another way she tries to keep her distance. Scott probably referred primarily to the battles between Vi and Ms. Roberts’ Barbara, which do hit sporadic heights of volubility. Barbara shifts strategies, from scene to scene and sometimes within a scene, in her attempt to tame the feral, to control that which she knows she cannot: her mother.

Mr. Scott may wish to see fewer such films of terrific actresses exchanging crackling dialogue. I ache for more. (Cumberbatch and McGregor are serviceable in relatively small roles, while the always reliable Cooper extracts maximum mileage from his two big scenes, both again low-volume.) Ms. Martindale, who voiced the American tourist in France in the last vignette of “Paris, Je T’Aime” (which had been Alexander Payne’s best work until “Nebraska”), teems with vitality and humor. My audience took rich pleasure in watching her and all the players tear into their parts. Scott’s review also referred to plate-throwing so often you’d think you were attending a wedding reception at a Greek restaurant. No spanakopita here; three women throw one plate each in one scene – total elapsed time: ten, maybe fifteen seconds. And, as for Scott’s suggestion that a late revelation is more semantic than seismic, see my response in the spoiler space below.

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With due respect, there’s a world of difference between falling in love with your cousin and falling in love with your brother.

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