Streep and Roberts star in the darkly hilarious and deeply touching story of the strong-willed women of the Weston family, whose lives converge when a family crisis brings them back to the Midwest house they grew up in, and to the dysfunctional mother who raised them. August: Osage County is based on the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Drama-winning play by Tracy Letts, who is also known as Andrew Lockhart on Showtime's Homeland. Director John Wells, best known as executive producer and showrunner of hit television series ER, The West Wing and Shameless, skillfully translates from stage to screen, leading an all-star cast.
Dysfunctional families make great theater, because audiences can see elements of themselves and their loved ones in the characters portrayed on stage...and remain a safe distance away from them. Watching others bicker, spar, rant, rage, recoil, withdraw, and brandish innumerable quirks and insecurities often makes us feel better about our own messy lives, or at least take comfort in the fact we're not alone. Let's face it, we're all inherently dysfunctional to some degree, and the complex, ever-evolving dynamics of the ever-changing American family is fascinating to witness, dissect, and evaluate.
No two broods are exactly the same, and few clans can come close to matching the volatile, often vicious, occasionally violent Westons, whose long-repressed resentments and buried secrets rise to the surface and erupt with volcanic fury during one sweltering month at the family's Oklahoma homestead. The explosive confrontations and recriminations form the crux of 'August: Osage County,' an absorbing, affecting - and slightly dysfunctional - adaptation of Tracy Letts' Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning play that ran for nearly 650 performances on Broadway. Fueled by a high-voltage cast led by Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts, this searing portrait of shattered lives and hurtful actions won't win any awards in the feel-good category, but its truth and frankness - and especially its impeccable performances - make it a haunting, if not wholly successful, cinematic experience.
The members of the splintered and weary Weston family, led by the loud-mouthed, brutally frank, pill-popping Violet (Streep) and her brooding, alcoholic, intellectual husband Beverly (Sam Shepard), wear their battle scars - born from years of incessant sniping - like badges of honor, and when the three grown daughters congregate at their childhood home in Osage County to lend their mother support after their father mysteriously disappears, sparks immediately fly, igniting an interpersonal firestorm that will sweep through the family and leave no one unscathed. All possess strong personalities, but no one can stand up to Vi, who also suffers from mouth cancer (probably due to all the venom she constantly spews), which exacerbates a drug dependence that often provokes wild mood swings. Barbara (Roberts), the eldest sibling, harbors a long-standing grudge against her enigmatic mother, but also has her hands full with her estranged philandering husband, Bill (Ewan McGregor), and rebellious daughter, Jean (Abigail Breslin), both of whom substantially raise her stress level. Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), the placid middle daughter, dutifully absorbs Vi's degrading barbs in the hope of one day escaping the oppressive environment with her first cousin, Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch), with whom she's romantically involved. (Yes, that's right, her first cousin.) Rounding out the sisterly triumverate is the free-spirited, starry-eyed, self-absorbed Karen (Juliette Lewis), who arrives in town with her rich fiancé (Dermot Mulroney), a thrice-married big shot who quickly bonds with the teenage Jean over their mutual vice, weed. Tragedy, shocking revelations, and arguments galore ensue as everyone strikes out against each other.
Initially, much of the fighting and nastiness doesn't seem to serve a higher purpose. Yet upon closer examination, 'August: Osage County,' through its verbal zingers and bizarre mix of tough love, cruelty, deviance, and devastating honesty, explores the degeneration of the American Dream, and how all the material, social, and intellectual advantages previous generations fought so hard to attain have been squandered by an ungrateful youth that views wealth, love, and happiness as entitlements. The film also depicts how the ties that bind can easily unravel, and even blood relationships need care and nurturing to survive.
Intimate dramas like 'August: Osage County' often struggle to shed their theatrical roots and maintain the same visceral power and electric immediacy that distinguished them on stage. Though the film version, adapted by Letts himself, opens up well and flows smoothly, many of the highly charged encounters are so in-our-face, the vitriol and acrimony often teeter on the brink of caricature. That may be the nature of dark comedy, but in the theatrical environment, there's just enough air between the audience and what transpires behind the proscenium arch to suspend disbelief, yet still absorb the emotion emanating from the actors. In the extreme close-up world of film, however, such unbridled power, if not handled sensitively and doled out judiciously, can overwhelm and alienate us. And that's what occasionally happens here. No, these characters aren't subtle, but all their yelling and screaming and brawling and plate breaking wear on us over time, and ironically, their actions seem more stylized in the "realistic" medium of motion pictures than they do within the controlled confines of the theater.
And yet much of the pleasure of 'August: Osage County' is derived from simply soaking up the fabulous acting on display. Yes, vital themes permeate this piece, but without question this film belongs to its performers, and Streep deserves the lion's share of kudos. In yet another astounding portrayal in which she - again - completely embodies her character, Streep, whose Vi makes Martha in 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?' look like a pussycat by comparison, moves from riveting highs to resonating lows - sometimes during the same scene - and justly earns her 18th Oscar nomination. Roberts, at last abandoning makeup and the trappings of youth, is equally fine as the formidable, middle-aged Barbara, the one person who truly understands her mother and, much to her chagrin, most closely resembles her. Roberts often goes toe-to-toe with Streep, and more than holds her own, crafting a beautifully layered and uncompromising portrait of a woman pulled in many directions who must finally choose herself over others. In fact, each cast member fits snugly into this tight ensemble, and though we never truly forget who we're watching, we respect each and every performance for both its subtlety and impact.
The direction by John Wells ('The Company Men') may be straightforward and uninspired, but he's smart enough to leave his actors alone and let them do their thing, never stealing their thunder or shifting our focus away from them. 'August: Osage County' surely plays better on the stage than it does on the screen, but we're lucky to have such superb work preserved on film. And the more we scrutinize and savor it, the more powerful Letts' excellent play becomes.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'August: Osage County' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and default audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. Once the disc is inserted into the player, previews for 'One Chance,' 'Lee Daniels' The Butler,' and 'Philomena' immediately pop up before the full-motion menu with music.
Crisp and clean best describes this stellar 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 effort from Anchor Bay that hits all the appropriate benchmarks, but somehow still lacks the wow factor that distinguishes the best transfers. The pristine source material is free of any specks, marks, or scratches that would disrupt the film's flow, and not a hint of grain creeps into this smooth, streamlined presentation. Much of the movie transpires in dimly lit interior settings, and the cinematography rightfully reflects the dreary atmosphere of Violet's home. Clarity and contrast, however, are quite good, showing off fine details and background elements well, and exteriors exude welcome vibrancy. Color comes at a premium, but the rolling Oklahoma hills and barren plains are nicely rendered, and the fire-engine red of Steve's car provides some welcome pop. Black levels are rich and deep, and fleshtones remain natural and true throughout.
Close-ups zero in on every wrinkle and facial sag, shadow delineation is quite good (only a couple of instances of minor crush could be detected), and no banding, noise, or pixelation creep into the image. Digital enhancements are absent, too, making this a natural-looking transfer that suits the material and doesn't steal focus from the powerful interactions that fuel the narrative.
For a dialogue-based movie, 'August: Osage County' possesses a surprisingly robust DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track that features quite a bit of surround activity. Finely modulated ambient effects take center stage, with the Oklahoma breeze, buzzing crickets, and chirping birds providing plenty of atmosphere. Stereo separation up front is also pronounced, especially when various music cues kick in, and a few bursts of powerful bass lend welcome heft to this largely top-heavy mix. A wide dynamic scale handles all the highs and lows fairly well, with only a couple of instances of minor distortion creeping into the track.
The rowdy verbal interchanges between the characters, however, dominate the audio, and all the shouting, sniping, and expletive-laced remarks are always clear and comprehendible. The sparingly employed music score fills the room with ease, thanks to good fidelity and tonal depth, and no imperfections, such as hiss, pops, or crackles, are present. Though this track won't blow audiophiles away, it's a solid effort that punches up this intimate film.
A solid supplemental package enhances the disc.
Audio Commentary - Director John Wells and cinematographer Adriano Goldman sit down for a ho-hum commentary that concentrates far too much on the technical aspects of the shoot. The duo talks about the manipulation of light, the challenges they faced filming various scenes (usually involving cramped quarters), the use of CGI, and how the fluctuations in temperature affected the production. Wells does delve a bit into how the actors prepared for important moments and their preferred method of working (Streep, of course, is rightfully praised profusely), but precious little is said about the piece itself. It would have been interesting to learn about the differences between the play and movie script, get some character and thematic analysis, and hear some behind-the-scenes anecdotes, but like the dusty plains of Osage County, the remarks err on the dry side, making it tough to hang in there for the entire discussion. Aspiring directors and D.P.s might find this dialogue absorbing, but the average film fan will be bored.
Featurette: "The Making of 'August: Osage County'" (HD, 20 minutes) - Comments from the principal actors, especially Streep, distinguish this standard featurette that focuses mainly on the movie's strong performances. Wells describes his cast as an "embarrassment of riches," and all the performers allude to the story's ensemble nature and recall the family atmosphere they constructed on the set. The cast lauds Streep's superior work, and the actress herself talks about the liberating experience of portraying Violet. The tail end of the featurette spotlights the Kings of Leon and their musical contribution to and personal identification with the film.
Deleted Scenes (with optional commentary) (HD, 11 minutes) - Four excised scenes and one alternate take are included, and provide additional character beats, as well as a chance to further appreciate the excellent acting on display. Most deleted scenes aren't worth watching, but these are.
Featurette: "On Writing with Tracy Letts" (HD, 8 minutes) - The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of 'August: Osage County' discusses the play's autobiographical roots, how actors make his work better, and how writing the piece helped him come to terms with his own family history. He also ardently defends his native state of Oklahoma and decries how it has been depicted on screen in past.
Though it may have lost something in its transition from stage to screen, 'August: Osage County' remains an affecting and absorbing depiction of a dysfunctional family and the bitter, unbalanced matriarch who rules it like the proverbial queen bee. A first-rate cast, led by the incomparable Meryl Streep, infuses the material with passion and sincerity, and the gallery of excellent portrayals almost overshadows the heavy melodramatic air that hangs over the proceedings. While far from pleasant and populated by a host of unlikable characters, this blistering comedy-drama generates plenty of emotional fireworks, and inspires just enough introspection to make the story palatable. Strong video and audio transfers, as well as a nice array of supplements, distinguish Anchor Bay's Blu-ray presentation, and though all the unpleasantness on display may limit the film's appeal, the riveting performances help 'August: Osage County' earn a solid recommendation.