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Tolstoy writes at the beginning of Anna Karenina this famous line: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

That just explains why we see so many more movies about dysfunctional families than happy ones, because there are just too many of such stories to tell and countless ways to tell them.

August Osage County

Tracy Letts’s play August: Osage County was the 2008 Pulitzer Prize winner for drama. The stage production was well received as a hilarious satire and biting commentary of the contemporary, declining family. I know, ironic that we find humour in something that we ought to lament. However, the most accessible mode to communicate is probably by means of drama, satire, humor and entertainment.

The movie version however evokes very different reactions. Critic reviews are mixed. I’ve read some unreserved and harsh criticisms. One thing I find though, many of the critics admit to not having seen the stage performance. Well, I haven’t either. But I’ve at least done my due diligence, also to guard myself from A-list stars influencing my interpretation, I read the play before I went to see the movie.

First the reading experience. I’d thoroughly enjoyed it. The long quote like an epigraph at the beginning of the play prepares me for the content following. It describes parent/ child relationships, from All The King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren. Let me just quote the last lines:

And the good old family reunion, with picnic dinner under the maples, is very much like diving into the octopus tank at the aquarium.

Three Weston daughters, Barbara, Ivy and Karen reunite in their childhood house outside Pawhuska, Oklahoma, in a family crisis. Their father Beverly had been missing, later found drowned, an apparent suicide. Beverly was a one-time award winning poet who in later life drenched his misery in alcohol. The matriarch is the foul-mouthed Violet Weston, a destructive roadside bomb that explodes upon the slightest human contact. What makes her even more bitter is what could well be her nemesis, mouth cancer. She is often high on prescription drugs, while she prides herself that nothing slips by her without her noticing. She’s not demeaning, just ‘truth-telling’.

There are dark secrets in that old house unknown to the daughters, exposed during this present crisis. The twists and turns in the plot only accentuate the decayed skeleton of a family. But Letts’s lines are thought-provoking, albeit well mashed-up with curses and abrasive language. But there are LOL dialogues and humorous moments, and overall, an entertaining, well crafted play. It starts off with this line: “Life is very long… T. S. Eliot”, and before the final Blackout it finishes with: “This is the way the world ends, this is the way the world ends, this is the way the world ends…” Hollow men in their precarious condition.

Intelligent lines, a far-fetched character, but not impossible situations, and yes, some nasty verbal and literal combats. I must say, having read the play helps me appreciate the movie more, despite its faults.

So, here we go round the prickly pear…

Streep and Roberts in August Osage County

THE MOVIE

If you haven’t read the play or seen the stage production, you just might be in for some rude awakening. Director John Wells is known more for his TV series than his one full length feature The Company Men (2010). I’m glad though Tracy Letts writes the screenplay himself. He keeps many of the lines intact, and adds some scenes for cinematic purposes.

While exuding fearful authority to everyone who crosses her path, Meryle Streep is fearless in adopting a vocabulary of expletives and curses playing Violet Weston. Her daughter Barabara (Julia Roberts) is more restrained and obviously exasperated to find herself slipping into similar form in relating to her recently divorced husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) and teenaged daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin).

Ivy lives close to Violet but no more as she has her exit plan. However, we know what best-laid plans often do. Youngest sister Karen changes men like wardrobes; oblivious (or maybe not) to her, her present fiancé Steve (Dermot Mulroney) looks like another disappointment. Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale) is a supportive sister to Violet, but she too has to nurse her own unspeakable past. Her husband Charlie (Chris Cooper) is probably of the soundest mind in this family. He has spoken a few admirable lines as he confronts his wife’s maltreatment of her own son, Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch). But of course, Mattie fae has her own Gordian knot to deal with.

The person that silently offers practical help whenever there are crashes and especially so in the last scene is the Indian maid hired by Beverly a few days before he disappears. Johnna (Misty Upham) cooks, serves, observes, and raises moral protest with a shovel. She is the one at the end of Letts’s play softly reciting T. S. Eliot’s lines, “This is the way the world ends…” while Violet utters: “and then you’re gone, and then you’re gone, and then you’re gone…” In the movie we hear Clapton’s ‘Lay Down Sally’: “But won’t you make yourself at home and stay with me? Don’t you ever leave…” Less literary and more obvious.

The key to enjoying the movie is to find entertainment in its dark comedy, taking misbehaviour and maltreatments as satire, overly dramatic scenes as farce, exaggerated gestures and facial expressions as comedic spasms. But of course, there are scenes that are serious, thus sending the mixed messages of an incongruent  genre. For entertainment purposes here, I think it is fine to feel poignancy through the chaos.  

Yet the movie has its faults, and it’s not hard to pick out. Inconsistency in blocking of characters is an example. One obvious scene is when Bill is driving Barbara to identify her father’s body. We see Barbara sit in the back seat with daughter Jean, delivering her ‘die after me ” plea. As the car stops, the camera points to the front of the car and we see Barbara (or her stand-in) steps out from the front passenger seat.

But overall, as a play turned movie, it is less claustrophobic than the one-room setting of Carnage (2011). And the entertainment value can be found in the acting of most of the characters, in particular, Streep and Roberts. If there are faults, they are not in over-acting. Roberts’s restrained performance is a good counter-balance to Streep’s overbearing character. In the hands of a more experienced director, we may see better-handled scenes with more control and consistency. Watching the movie, I have the feeling that Wells is following Letts’s written description in the literal sense. Why, in the play, the floor wrestling between Violet and Barbara is written with these words: “ad-lib“.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

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