In the first scene of August: Osage County, Meryl appears at the bottom of a staircase, confused, pale, her hair stripped down to just a few short strands of gray. She looks as awful in this scene as she has ever looked on-screen, and immediately, just two minutes in, we know this film is going to feature Meryl in a very dramatic performance, the likes of which were only briefly seen in The Manchurian Candidate and Marvin’s Room. If Death Becomes Her features Meryl’s most over-the-top performance in a comedy, August: Osage County offers probably her most over-the-top turn in a drama. Some of her moments portraying the pill-popping, cancer-riddled, foul-mouthed Violet Weston—the matriarch of a large messed-up family—are effective and mesmerizing, and then there are other moments where she goes a little too big with all her vindictive yelling. She’s always entertaining, but there are shades of her trying too hard in August: Osage County, a mediocre movie that unfortunately doesn’t add up to much.
The film is based on the Tony-award-winning, Pulitzer-Prize-winning play by Tony Letts. Premiering in Chicago in 2007, the play went on to enjoy a long Broadway run that lasted 648 performances, as well as a run on the London stage. Reviews of the play were mostly enthusiastic, while reviews of the film were much more mixed. Sometimes plays have seamless transitions to the big screen—the magnificent 12 Angry Men and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf are two perfect examples—while others struggle to find the same emotional power on the big screen—the dull Plenty, also starring Meryl, is a prime example. August: Osage County ran a whopping three-and-a-half hours on the stage, and by truncating its runtime to barely two hours for the movie, Letts, who also wrote the screenplay, had to lose strong character moments that made the play so engaging for audiences. While a few powerful moments remain in the film, there are so many characters to keep track of and so much angst and extreme hate that never seems truly earned that after awhile, the film feels more contrived than it should. Also, director John Wells, most known as a TV producer, and who had only directed one other movie—2010’s The Company Men—before this one, doesn’t give the film any discernable visual style.
What helps this flawed film the most is the astonishing ensemble cast, one of the most impressive ever compiled for a Meryl movie. Julia Roberts is the other big star in the film, but also on board are Ewan McGregor, Sam Shepard, Dermot Mulroney, Julianne Nicholson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Juliette Lewis, Abigail Breslin, and the late Misty Upham, as well as Meryl’s First Do No Harm co-star Margo Martindale and her Adaptation co-star Chris Cooper. Any three of those actors headlining a movie would be something worth seeing, so to have them all in this production makes this mixed bag of a movie worth watching at least once. Everyone does a fine job, but the three most notable supporting performances from this group come from Nicolson, Cooper, and Roberts. Nicholson, so subtle and effective on Showtime’s Masters of Sex, gives probably the quietest performance in the movie, and she has a terrific moment at the end when she learns a horrific truth about the man she loves. Cooper has the most honest scene in the movie, when after minutes of hatred has been spewed from one character to another, he confronts his wife (Martindale) and demands that she show moe respect to their son (Cumberbatch). For a few years, Roberts had a string of bad performances in flop movies, starting with 2009’s Duplicity and ending with 2012’s Mirror Mirror, and thankfully the role of Barbara gave Roberts her meatiest role since Anna in Mike Nichols’ Closer. She is in many ways the heart of the film, and she has some nice, authentic moments along the way.
And then, of course, there’s Meryl, who initially didn’t want to play the role of Violet. In interviews she has stated that playing this character wasn’t exactly something she yearned for, particularly given Violet’s non-stop nasty attitude. She was ultimately persuaded, though, and she commits to this character’s vitriolic attitude with no restraint whatsoever. While the film is an ensemble piece, Meryl is in lots of the movie, with a moving moment when she gets out of a car and runs through a field, a startling scene outside in the cold where she talks about her late husband, a sad conclusion where she dances to a song and realizes none of her daughters plan to stay, and two memorably whacko dinner table scenes that bring out the craziness in everyone. A moment late in the film is most remembered for the ridiculous line, “Eat the fish, bitch!” that Barbara screams at Violet, but it’s also a well-constructed scene of fast-cutting and suspense that works well, especially considering how great of chemistry Meryl, Roberts, and Nicholson have together.
The dinner scene with the entire group, though, is the true centerpiece of the narrative. It is here that all the characters come together and share their feelings and pains and morbid thoughts. Violet sits at one end of the table, barking at almost everyone nearby in the rudest ways imaginable: calling one of her daughters ugly, and yelling at her sister’s husband, “Blow it out your ass!” As hard as some of what she says here is to take, it’s important to remember that the character is in immense physical pain from her cancer and is reeling from the loss of her husband; she’s a mean-spirited person to begin with so to add in these two factors bring out the worst in her. Meryl could have played this scene with a bit more subtlety; sometimes she goes so big it feels like she’s projecting on a stage to reach everyone in an audience, and not in a movie, where she can dial it back a little. However, her commanding presence in a room full of great actors is felt beginning to end, and she does her best to make some of the more hollow lines of dialogue ring true. There are some inconsistencies to be found in her character’s anger—while she calls out her granddaughter (Breslin) for saying something demeaning to her mother, Barbara later screams atrocities at Violet, and yet Violet thinks nothing of it—but overall she is so steeped in madness that eventually anything crazy she does seems warranted. It would be hard for any actress to make a character like this seem three-dimensional, but Meryl does her best to give Violet sympathetic qualities, and not just turn her into a monstrous matriarchal caricature.
August: Osage County premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, was released in limited release on December 27, and then expanded nationwide in early January—obviously this was a movie that had Academy Awards written all over it. Many involved in the production and at the studio probably assumed this one was going to receive numerous awards, not just for Meryl and Roberts, but for Picture, Director, Screenplay, and possibly in some other acting categories. In the end, the film only received two Oscar nominations: one for Roberts, in Supporting Actress, and one for Meryl, in Lead Actress, marking her eighteenth nomination overall, yet another new record. While the film didn’t please audiences and critics as much as many might have expected, August: Osage County offered Meryl yet another fascinating, complex character to play in a performance that is constantly riveting, sometimes flawed, endlessly entertaining, a bit screechy at times, never boring—and always full of surprises.