Thursday, February 6, 2014

‘AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY’ A STAGGERINGLY GOOD MOVIE

Reviews in this current series include "Saving Mr. Banks," "American Hustle," "The Butler," “Nebraska.” “Dallas Buyers Club,” “12 Years a Slave,” “Blue Jasmine,”  “Captain Phillips,” “Inside Llewyn Davis”  and “her.”  Check them out and add your comments.

(Photo above:  Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep in remorse and combat in “August: Osage County.”)

By Dominique Paul Noth

Forget every praise you’ve heard in current commercials about ensemble movie acting.  The best of the lot has been largely unheralded because of hoopla salesmanship around a virtuoso name. 

But “August: Osage County” dominates the eye and the emotions because the cast knows better than to chew the scenery.  They are the epitome of ensemble. In a searing drama that hypnotized Broadway, they just become the family, without pretence or avoidance, not showing off but working together. 


And that winds up flooring us with gasps of laughter, disgust, heartbreak and desperate desire to see them escape their circumstances.


John Wells, no stranger to drama as the helmsman behind “ER” and “West Wing,” has not embraced the modern cinematic fashion of making his directorial presence felt. He just makes the Weston family felt.  He knows how to trust this cast and the dark and light corners they can capture.  He actually disguises how cleverly he has moved the camera and edited the film to follow the actors around a stifling Oklahoma farmhouse in August as they cope with domestic tragedy. Even the dinner for 10 where family fury and secrets spill out features more break-in close-ups and flowing cuts than the riveted audience realizes. 


Wells and Pulitzer winning playwright (and noted actor) Tracy Letts have cunningly excised the most obvious melodramatic segments from the play and wisely trusted the fire and ice of the character interactions. That rides us past the unfolding coincidences and revelatory twists that in lesser hands would make our conviction falter.


I haven’t mentioned Meryl Streep at the center.  It’s Violet’s house and Violet’s ugliness that drive the story -- a foul-mouthed pill popping harridan spewing crazed extremes of spitefulness and sentiment.  Violet’s eruptions unsettle and unleash the family gathered around her and force them, one by one, to face her cancer-ridden mouth and their own vulnerabilities. 


It’s no surprise anymore, not after more than four decades of acting variety on stage and screen, that Streep is amazingly good.  But it’s worth a pause to explore why.  She herself jokes that her talents have been so honored that her name itself has become boring to the public.  I suspect she is as much at a loss as anyone to explain her “acting method,” but just itemize the elements inside her technique.



Julianne Nicholson, Streep and Margo Martindale
 share a happier moment of family memories
 in “August: Osage County.”
She has a brilliant analytical mind for literature and characters, a total mastery not just of accents but of vocal range and mimicry when needed, an observational talent for how humans and even animals behave.  Her hands, her body, even her eyebrows are quicksilver immediate. Wigs and makeup are a detailed second skin. Her instincts dominate her planning and lead her to inhabit but never hide the character, nor duck any flamboyance called for. 

In acting there is such a thing as feeling the character’s thought process, the way continuity erupts in the character’s head. But we never want to see the actor’s process, the way he or she is making it work.  I am one of the few critics to ever call out the young Streep on this, since there were moments in “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” where I saw the actress control the timing she usually makes seem seamless.


But hardly ever since has this happened – and given that she is still the same familiar body in front of us, given the range of her work, given both understanding and insensitive directors she has had to cope with, given the variety of depth in the scripts, given the stop-and-go acting required in making films, this is extraordinary. It’s not just that she’s earned the mantle of “greatest living actress.”  Only in television interviews does she acknowledge that reputation. Give her a part and she fights for the role and the purpose of the story, not her aura of infallibility.


The determination to disappear within the character but never be quiet, never be anything but convincing as well as riveting, sets her apart, and it apparently caused  similar devotion throughout the  “August: Osage County”  cast.  In a role that most wouldn’t even expect her to embrace, she makes us doubt that anyone else could ever be Violet.


Streep is only the top of an interlocked pyramid.  Letts’ play is quite observant and insightful in its own right, but he must know that the quality of these actors makes the entire difference between a dramatic comedy we admire and a dramatic comedy that mesmerizes and forces us to lean in to every development.

  
Julia Roberts -- as the oldest daughter full of the interior tempest and take-charge willpower that echoes her mother even as she fights against being like her – is as focused within the role as she’s ever been. It’s a case of belonging in a first-class league without dominating it, though the movie is tempted to play up her screen reputation, such as a finale moment not as dark as the script drives toward. 


Chris Cooper with Benedict Cumberbatch
 as his son in “August: Osage County.”
Others beside Streep must be particularly singled out. There’s the magnetic Julianne Nicholson as Ivy, the shy daughter with fierce misplaced determination.  Margo Martindale as Mattie, the domineering balloon of a demanding aunt whose bossiness contains some startling reversals.  Chris Cooper as Mattie’s husband, the apparent milquetoast who erupts in powerful defense of his son.  Benedict Cumberbatch as that son, a social weakling whose inability to fight for himself makes the audience long to fight for him.

Keeping pace in this concert of observation are Juliette Lewis, Abigail Breslin, Ewan McGregor, Dermot Mulroney and Misty Upham.


In an age where pyrotechnics and computerized graphics tend to dominate the box office, I do worry about the drawing power of so straightforward and self-contained a film. My fondness for movies that take apart the human condition doesn’t lower my knowledge that many such films are correctly  regarded in the public mind as heavy or even turgid. This one isn’t – it sails along. But even praising its insights into the family genetics we all can’t escape and even honoring the virtues of its farmhouse ensemble may be doing a commercial disservice.


So I venture a guess. Whatever the entertainment tabloids proclaim over the next months, thirty years from now when we pull out the film of 2013 that had a lasting impact on our American psyche  and best  demonstrated  the enduring human power of cinema, it will be  “August: Osage County.”  (Just don’t wait 30 years to prove me right.)


The author was film and drama critic, then senior editor for features at The Milwaukee Journal, then a leader in online news forums and editor for a decade of the Milwaukee Labor Press. He now writes regularly for several publications on politics and culture, including occasional theater reviews and historical pieces at thirdcoastdaily.