August: Osage County - DVD Review

'Never stops browbeating you long enough to allow you to appreciate its occasional moments of humour'.

Populated by a swarm of female characters fuelled by varying high levels of vitriol, the fact that August: Osage County relentlessly focuses upon its assembled coven turns what could have been a surmountable narrative stumbling block into a crucial failing of John Wells' film adaptation of Tracy Letts' play. Simply put, spending much more than about five minutes with any of the women of the Weston family becomes a bluntly unpleasant experience.

Wells does succeed in filling a great many of his film's roles with some of Hollywood's finest. Meryl Streep as acid-tongued, pill-popping matriarch Violet puts in an undeniably powerful performance (but then, in all honesty, when doesn't she?) However, when you feel like you're being beaten over the head by every line of Streep's bitter and barbed backbiting, it becomes increasingly difficult to appreciate the dramatic performance going on in front of you. It's little wonder husband Beverly (Sam Shepard) chooses to depart so early on in the story.

Julia Roberts as eldest daughter Barbara is perhaps even harder to take, storming through the film with a permanent face like a salvo of thunderbolts and regularly mistaking shouting at anyone who gets in her way for conveying complex emotion. This is arguably the type of role Roberts has been waiting to sink her teeth into for some time; it's just a shame that once she does, she refuses to relax her jaw for even a second until any potential for subtlety has been ripped to shreds.

A byproduct of the film's female focus is Wells' criminal under-utilization of the talented men at his disposal. Chris Cooper undoubtedly delivers the film's most nuanced performance when given the room to do so; a scene between Charlie (Cooper) and his son "Little Charles" (Benedict Cumberbatch, reliably excellent but utterly wasted here) is one of the film's most gentle and heartfelt, a welcome respite from the tongue-lashings to be found in most other scenes. At other points, Wells aims for a darkly comedic tone similar to that seen in the work of Alexander Payne. But, where Payne breaks up his films' tragedy with welcome flashes of undeniable comedy, August: Osage County never stops browbeating you long enough to allow you to appreciate its occasional moments of humour.

Letts' story also lacks the emotional payoff for putting you through its viscerally punishing two hours. A subplot centred on Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) - arguably the most likeable of Violet's three daughters - delivers a suckerpunch of a finale, only for the character to abruptly exit proceedings before any satisfying resolution can be achieved. It's a problem Wells allows to perpetually occur during the final act, leaving his film to draw to a close in an unfulfilling and anticlimactic, perhaps even nihilistic, fashion. Whilst August: Osage County could never be called a "bad" film per se - the accomplished cast within it makes sure of that - it is an interminably, unnecessarily arduous piece of cinema that fails to justify its own foul nature.

By Ben Broadribb. Ben is a regular contributor to Film Intel, having previously written at Some Like It Hot Fuzz. He is normally seen in the wild wearing t-shirts containing obscure film references. He is a geek, often unashamedly so. He's also on and Twitter.

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