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AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY W/ MERYL STREEP & JULIA ROBERTS

year: 2014 rating: ***
In AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY, a play-based film using a handful of eclectic characters within a limited space, unexpected twists are some of the most intriguing aspects… But let’s not give anything away...

Like THE BIG CHILL, the plot centers on a group of people, in this case a semi-estranged family, gathered in one large rural house after the death of patriarch Sam Shepard as Beverly Weston, who, along with his blunt pill-popping wife Violet, played by Meryl Streep, begins the story taking enough venomous heat to last a lifetime… One can only imagine this man’s long, horrible marriage and may sympathize, or for that matter, completely understand his immanent suicide.

Violet’s returning daughters aren’t so lucky, especially her hardy eldest, Barbara. With a cheating husband and moping teenage daughter, Julia Robert’s put-upon character is not only Streep’s best match, she spouts the surliest dialogue: without being overly medicated as an excuse (her loud mom, ironically, has mouth cancer). Scenes where the two leading ladies argue are intense but can go overboard, making you wish someone would step in to break things up.

Nothing doing with this family, a somewhat passive lot including Chris Cooper as the mellow uncle, his discontented wife and a son so fragile he should wear a sticker. While Barbara’s other sisters include Julianne Nicholson as Ivy, keeping a secret that, unbeknownst to her, has an uncomfortable layer and Juliette Lewis as Karen who, playing the dizzy-headed youngest, is the least important in the mix. But it really comes down to Streep and Roberts even though, into the third act, mom’s part dwindles while Barbara alone holds the key to an already unlocked door.

The direction is crisp and never feels staged, painting a vivid picture that often exceeds an overindulged, melodramatic script with too much edgy banter… If a ringside bell clang before each “couple” squared off, the soundtrack would be a perpetual alarm clock. And while Meryl Streep turns in a solid performance, her addiction and illness provides too much of a safety net, making it hard to shine past her demons: handing the mysterious energy to Julia Roberts.   

Tempered by sporadic flashes of the Oklahoma countryside and/or sunsets, it’s clear this meloncholy clan spends too much time self loathing when they should appreciate the peaceful, gorgeous exterior. Who knows – maybe that’s what poor dad wanted all along.
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