'August: Osage County' Review: Meryl Streep And Julia Roberts Are Perfect In This Family Drama
August: Osage County has been creating award season buzz since it was announced that Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts would be playing mother and daughter in the film adaptation of the acclaimed Tracy Letts play. After seeing the film, I can say with complete certainty that the buzz was well-warranted. Julia Roberts gives what might be the best performance of her career as Barbara, the eldest, and most combative daughter, of Violet (Streep) who returns to her childhood home in the South after her father, Beverly (Sam Shepard), walks out on her mother. Violet plays the part of the abandoned wife well, exclaiming her utter dismay at being left, when, truthfully, she isn’t all too surprised – Beverly’s done this before.
For Streep, the difficulty of playing Violet isn't the demands of the role so much as it is the ability to transform into Violet in the eyes of the audience. For some, being known also means being excessively recognizable, meaning that audiences don’t see a character, they see an actor acting. The very first second Streep appears onscreen as Violet, she completely erases any possibility of that thought ever entering the audience’s consciousness. Streep, known for her ability to change her appearance to truly disappear into a role (see: Iron Lady, Julie and Julia), appears fearless as Violet: with short, cropped, thinning, grey hair, big loose clothes and the wobbly movements of a prescription drug addict.
Violet only gets more unpleasant and unsympathetic as the film wears on. The matriarch rules the family with complete authority, not unlike a dictator, using fear and belittlement to ensure her reign. The most combative of Violet’s three daughters is Barbara, who is in danger of slowly becoming the mother she can barely stand. Roberts, so frequently dressed up in her roles, is stripped bare as Barbara, wearing loose-fitting blouses and dresses, with a barely made-up face. The role certainly gives Roberts the chance to move away from her beloved smile and laugh, the charm that made Pretty Woman a classic and that helped win her the Best Actress Oscar for Erin Brockovich in 2001. In August: Osage County, Roberts' character is one of the most serious and burdened in the entire family and Roberts proves that she doesn't have to rely on her charm for her talent.
August: Osage County is an intense family drama interrupted by moments of ridiculousness so intense, it’s near impossible to stop laughing in between horrifically depressing exchanges. The melodramatic plot twists do get a bit tedious towards the end of the film, but this could be due to the fact that the tension and drama are so high throughout the movie that towards the end, it becomes emotionally exhausting for the audience to keep up. This is hardly a downside, though it does make it evident that the film is based on a play. The screenplay, adapted for the screen by the playwright, certainly would not have suffered from a bit of tidying up. Juliette Lewis’ character, for example, while fun, is mostly unnecessary; as is the character of Barbara’s moody teenage daughter, Jean, played by Abigail Breslin.
What makes August: Osage County so good is the uniquely talented cast. Margo Martindale, perhaps better known as that great actress who’s in everything, but still difficult to place, is fantastic as Mattie Fae Aiken, Violet’s sister. It’s a difficult role to play – so similar to the infinitely cruel Violet that it’s difficult to see her as a unique character. The added pressure of acting opposite the legendary Streep makes it even more of a challenge to isolate Mattie Fae from Violet’s long shadow. Martindale pulls it off effortlessly, perfectly inhabiting every moment she’s onscreen. Fellow cast members Chris Cooper and Julianne Nicholson (Boardwalk Empire) are equally good. Nicholson stands out as Ivy Weston, one of the three Weston sisters and the only quiet member of the Weston family. Benedict Cumberbatch pops in as Ivy’s favorite cousin, Little Charles, and Roberts’ co-star from My Best Friend’s Wedding, Dermot Mulroney, also has a supporting role.