Hammering Out... August: Osage County

Hammering Out... August: Osage County

Hammering Out... is a series of movie reviews featuring a lively he said/she said discussion between John and Julie.  This week: AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY.

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JOHN: Although August: Osage County (I'm calling it AOC here on out) picked up two acting nominations for Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts last week, I'm pretty sure Harvey Weinstein had more in mind for the film than just that.  After all, it's based on Tracy Letts' Pulitzer Prize-winning play, beloved by nearly every audience member who has seen it.  The cast is fairly tony - not just Streep and Roberts, but Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Benedict Cumberbatch, Juliette Lewis, and more.  It's produced by George Clooney and Grant Heslov, who had some success last year with a little movie called Argo.  And, it's directed by John Wells who...uh, produced The West Wing and Shameless, and directed The Company Men?

Okay, so Wells seems out of his league here.  That's okay.  He acquits himself just fine.  Though, that being said, I would have loved to see Robert Altman's take on the material or William Friedkin (who adapted Letts's Bug and Killer Joe so well), or, say, P.T. Anderson (if the guy would ever direct something he didn't write himself).  But I'm getting ahead of myself.  So, how is the movie?  Surprisingly, not bad.  I wasn't expecting much.  The play is held in such high esteem - I never got to see it, but always wanted to.  When I heard they cut it down from 3.5 hours to 2 hours for the movie, I didn't cheer.  I thought it would be a hack job.  And, well, it kind of is.  You can tell that Letts was forced to cut a lot out of his script, which means the movie often plays like a greatest hits package: Suicide! Fights! Adultery! Incest!  Still, the work is distinctly Letts (seriously, if you haven't seen Killer Joe yet - do it!), and his balance of dark humor and family drama still shines through.

The performances are all solid, especially Roberts, Juliette Lewis, and Julianne Nicholson, as the three put-upon sisters.  The guys are also good, especially Cooper and Sam Shepard (as the family patriarch), and prove to be the most likeable characters in the movie, even when they do dastardly things like cheat (McGregor) or hit on 14 year-old girls (Dermot Mulroney).  As for Streep, well, she's Meryl Streep so she's always good, but this is Meryl: Unleashed.  Wells has no control of that runaway train, and Streep just tears through the scenery without abandon, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse, with Margo Martindale right behind her.  AOC may not hold a candle to the play, but it definitely made me want to see the play, so...win?  What'd you think?

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JULIE: Well, I think Meryl Streep and Margo Martindale should star in the next The Heat-type female buddy movie, that's for sure. I thought the pair played off each other very well. But you're right, the two of them do a lot of scenery chewing in the AOC.

I walked into this movie not knowing much about the play and not knowing much about its evolution to film. I'm sure that played into my enjoyment of the film, because I really liked it. It didn't feel like a play turned into a movie to me, and that's to its credit. The performances were all quite good. I was particularly blown away by Julia Roberts, possibly because I was expecting her to be the weak link in this cast. She wasn't at all. She turned in a very "non Julia Roberts" performance, complete with a make-under and a prosthetic (or was it?) stomach paunch. I also loved Julianne Nicholson, who, having just finished a turn in the acclaimed Masters of Sex on Showtime, is having quite the career boost right now. Good for her.

The rest of it, yeah. There are a lot of Big Things happening here. A lot of melodrama. I don't know if it plays less in-your-face in the play, but in the movie it does feel like every cliche bad thing that can happen to a family (cancer! suicide! incest! a pot-smoking, fast-driving, thrice-divorced new fiance!) happens to this family. And (just because I need one more thing to complain about) can we talk about how this movie/play also has one of my least favorite tropes in independent film/pretentious works about family -- artsy dysfunctional parents. Of course the dad in this film is a poet/professor. Of course he is. He couldn't have been a farmer or a plumber or a data processor? He simply had to be an artist? Not all dysfunctional parents are artists who have whole rooms full of books and a house full of antiques. I don't know why that bothers me, but it does. I have the same reaction to novels where writing saves the main character.

But if that's my biggest pet peeve about this movie, that's not too bad, is it?

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JOHN: Yeah, I would say so.  The whole artsy dysfunctional parents didn't bother me in the slightest - in fact, I didn't even notice it - so that might just be a personal issue you need to work though.  You can still take it out on the movie if you want though.  Oh, and for the record, I have zero interest in seeing a Streep-Martindale action comedy unless Martindale gets to have the same amount of flatulence in it as she does on CBS' The Millers.

That aside, I don't know that there's any more to say about AOC.  I'm betting that if you saw and liked the play, you probably won't think much of the movie.  If you haven't seen the play, you'll probably find the movie a little dark and depressing, and not at all the "comedy" the Golden Globes would have you believe this is.  Sure, there are darkly comic moments, and plenty of laughs, but AOC is not a comedy.  Again, I wish the movie could have been a little longer.  I don't know if the play has them, but I would have loved more dinner table scenes like the showcase one in the movie.  Get that cast all around one table and let the sparks fly.  AOC is at its best at that moment.

One more thing - Benedict Cumberbatch had a stellar year in film, but this has to be his weakest role, right?  He was kinda miscast too.  When the new season of Sherlock came on Sunday night, a couple hours after we saw this, I was so happy to see him back in Cumberbitch mode.  Can I get a what what?!

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JULIE: I do have a lot of personal issues to work through. That's why we do these Hammering Out... posts.

Cumberbatch is obviously always a welcome addition, but this movie (and 12 Years a Slave, actually) did not give me the Cumberbatch I crave. I like the smarty pants, slightly menacing Benedict, so, yes, I'm glad to see him back as Sherlock.

I think the AOC is worth watching, even if it should've been directed by zombie Robert Altman. I give it a three...out of six (That was a very obscure New Girl reference from the most recent episode. If you have to explain it, Julie, it's not funny. Shut up, me. See? Personal issues.)

JOHN: Personal issues be damned, that's your best rating scale yet!  I'll stick to the normal 5-star scale, and give it a solid 3 out of 5.

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