Film Review: Puts the Fun in Dysfunctional Family


Note: as part of Throwback Thursday, I’m posting this film review I wrote January 3, 2014, for my LiveJournal blog. I am planning to slowly move over anything of substance from LiveJournal to this one, with plans on turning the LiveJournal into something else.

August: Osage County, written by Tracy Letts (based on his play of the same name), directed by John Wells. Copyright 2013. Buy at

Back in September 2011, I had the opportunity to see the Kansas City Rep’s take on the play version of August: Osage County. So, I was very familiar with the plot, and was only vaguely interested in seeing the film version, mainly to see the host of awesomeness of actors (Meryl Streep, Ewan McGregor, Julia Roberts, and, yes, Benedict Cumberbatch).

As I wrote in my review, I don’t like this play, but that doesn’t mean it’s not any good. I did think the various dysfunctionalities of the family just seem to keep escalating, like it was one big Oscar-bait (and, of course, in this case also Tony-bait) set of checkmarks that needed to be responded to to qualify as drama, but if you get past that, it’s an excellent opportunity for some great acting.

The plot is fairly simple: the patriarch of the family, Beverly (Sam Shepard), disappears, and the three daughters with their families and a sister all come to the homestead to try and figure out what to do with their mother, played by Streep. But as mentioned, the dysfunction never ends with this family. One of the three daughters, Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), has been home this whole time and has a secret lover; the oldest daughter, Barbara (Roberts), is in the middle of a separation from her husband (McGregor) and is becoming distanced from her daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin); and the youngest, Karen (Juliette Lewis) is with her latest (in apparently a long line) fiance (Dermot Mulroney), who apparently likes his women young. Then, of course, there’s the sister Mattie Fae Aiken (Margo Martindale), who has a secret of her own regarding her son Little Charles (Cumberbatch). The only sane person (outside of the “Injun” hired by Beverly to take care of Violet) in the family is Mattie Fae’s husband Charlie (played brilliantly by Chris Cooper).

Streep shines as Violet, who’s suffering from cancer of the mouth both literally and figuratively, as not one thing passes her lips that isn’t a vile jab of meanness. But what I found interesting was Roberts and her performance as Barbara. While I try to keep mediums separate and not compare, I can’t help but do it in this case. From what I remember of the play version, August: Osage County was a play about Violet, and her epic descent into a hate filled place to the point that no one wanted to stay with her. (Heck: the only person with her at the end is PAID to be there.) However, the movie version was much more about Barbara and her (not very successful) attempt to not turn into her mother. The now infamous dinner scene, which ends with literal punches thrown, is an acting tour de force for everyone, but especially Streep and Roberts. The screenplay was written by the playwright Tracy Letts, and the only thing that I didn’t really care for was the tacked on scene at the end, which was obviously put there for some sort of closure the studios felt was needed.

Unlike some reviewers, I actually thought the theatricality of the play and the acting worked BETTER on the screen than it did when I saw it as a play. The story works better when it’s about Barbara and not Violet, and the immediacy of the film made me be less distanced from the tragedy that is this family. You can see Barbara’s slow decent into becoming her mother, and her dawning horror at the realization as it happens.

I don’t know if I would necessarily recommend this film, any more than I like to recommend Shindler’s List or War of the Roses. This is a movie you endure, not enjoy. But if you like those kinds of things, this movie definitely is worth checking into.