August: Osage County: No Fun in Their Dysfunction

By Sandra Olmsted

If George (Richard Burton) and Martha (Elizabeth Taylor) from director Mike Nichols’ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolff? (1966) had had children, this would have been their family dynamic, and not since that battling couple has a film captured the dysfunction, pettiness, and conflict of family life as does director John Wells’ August: Osage County.

Furthermore, Meryl Streep’s performance as Violet, the acid-tongued, vitriol-spewing matriarch of the Weston clan rivals Taylor’s performance in Nichols’ classic adaptation. In fact, all these henpecked men, tough women, and saner, more vulnerable family members are etched on the camera’s lens by great actors and actresses.

When her put-upon, alcoholic husband, Bev (Sam Shepard) disappears, Violet summons her daughters home, but the question is why. While middle child Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) has stay close to home and outgrown, in many way, the abusive effect of her parents’ troubled marriage, and especially her mother’s cruelty, Barbara (Julia Roberts), the eldest, struggles with being too much like her mother, and the youngest daughter, Karen (Juliette Lewis), dearly wants any semblance of her mother’s approval

Barbara comes from Colorado with her estranged husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) and teen-aged daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin) in tow, and Karen arrives with Steve (Dermot Mulroney), her fiancé, or “this year’s model,” a questionable Florida real estate developer. Also there for support and for giving and/or taking abuse are Violet’s sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale), her husband Charles (Chris Cooper), and their henpecked son, called Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch), who admires Bev, a retired college professor and famous writer.

Violet, whose disagnose of “month cancer” is called “the punch line” by Bev, never lets anything slide when she can inflict pain by verbally abusing her family. Although Barbara and Bill try to conceal their marital problems, “nothing gets passed” Violet, who attacked her daughter.

The main conflict develops between Barbara and Violet, who blames her daughter for escaping the abuse and challenges Barbara over who is “stronger.” Meanwhile, Barbara takes all the drugs away from her drug-addicted mother who uses her cancer as an excuse for abusing drugs and uses the drugs as an excuse for abusing her family.

Their test of wills plays out against the backdrop of other dramas. Ivy has developed a strong, happy relationship and plans to escape with her lover, but family secrets may undermine her and her lover’s only hope of happiness. Violet hurts Karen in much more passive-aggressive ways. At a family dinner, Violet offers a piece of furniture to the older daughters who reject it, and never to Karen, who repeatedly admires the piece and all but asks for it.  The silent witness to this dysfunction is Johnna (Misty Upham), the Native American caregiver hired by Bev to care for Violet. Tragedy and secrets will be revealed, and choices will have to be made.

Wells’ adaptation of Tracy Letts; play  is primarily confined to the stifling Weston home, which is more uncomfortable because Violet refusing to turn on the air-conditioning despite the 100+ temperatures. The dark, hot house is a metaphor for the dark, angry issues simmering under the tumultuous family relationships. A release of The Weinstein Company, August: Osage County runs 121 minutes, is rated R for language. including sexual references and for drug material, and is in theaters Jan. 10.



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