TIFF Review: 'August: Osage County'

A family tragedy has brought the Westons together on the sleepy plains of Osage County, Oklahoma. Three daughters return home to tend to their cancerous mother, Violet Weston (Meryl Streep), an emotional and physical wreck, capable of kind words and then brutal diatribes at the flip of a switch. She's addicted to pain pills, and clearly has been for a significant amount of time, which riles her eldest daughter Barbara (Julia Roberts) to no end. What ensues can only be described as a matriarchal battle royale, with all sides squaring off against each other at various points, team members switching sides with every subsequent scene.

Barbara is going through a separation from her husband, while her younger sister Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) has only recently realized she's in love with her cousin (Benedict Cumberbatch). Finally, the youngest Weston woman, Karen (Juliette Lewis), is newly engaged, though it's clear from her fiancee's demeanor that this is to be a largely transactional relationship, his money for her turning a blind eye to his utter lack of compassion. Throw in a Native American cook, recently hired by the late Poppa Weston, just because, and you've got all the makings of a family drama in the vein of "The Family Stone" or "Little Miss Sunshine". Unfortunately, all those promising makings turn sour, and the film ends up heading to Melodramaville, population: bad movies.

Right from the start, problems abound with relatability. One thing "August: Osage County" makes clear is that the family portrayed, The Westons, have treated each other hideously in both recent and ancient memory. Momma Weston has a beef with every single member of the family, Barbara broke dad's heart by moving away, plus fractured marriages, alcohol abuse, substance abuse, physical abuse, child abuse, incest, suicide, infidelity, you name the crippling emotional act, this family has either been through it or is about to get a heavy dose of it. All of the people we see, throughout the movie, are hollowed out shells of humans, dysfunctional to the point of paralysis, and if you haven't berated anyone in the last few hours you'll likely have a rough time "getting" these madcap monsters. If you took "The Royal Tenenbaums", mixed it with "Closer" and then threw in a dash of "Throw Momma from The Train", you'd start to get a pretty accurate idea of the tone presented here, wildly uneven, darkly comedic at times, but almost always painful to watch. What's truly unnerving about the whole thing is how good certain scenes are, and how great a few of the performances come off, especially Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep – they're doing amazing work, only it's the equivalent of building a lovely home on a foundation of quicksand.

There are a few positive aspects of "August: Osage County", the most crucial of which is the film's overall (but imperfect) respect for Tracy Letts' Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name, on which this adaptation is based. With a script adapted for the screen by Letts herself, director John Wells is happy to maintain the original's theatrical and somewhat formless narrative structure of the original. "August: Osage County" is a movie that makes brave choices, upon occasion, but it's all the poor choices, coming in a rapid-fire manner, that eventually sink the work.

The family portrayed in "August: Osage County" is so dysfunctional that, after a point, it becomes difficult to understand why these people are even in the same room as each other, much less professing to care about each other's lives. And my goodness, the yelling. So much yelling, so many arguments, so many screaming matches (that feel like monologues you'd overhear at an acting school). You know that big scene in certain types of dramas where a character finally gathers his or her courage and tells off the bad guy, expressing decades of pent-up frustration; finally exacting righteous justice? This film is overrun with 'em. To be fair, one of the dozen or so fights might have worked, and perhaps individually maybe they all work, but once you weave them all together it becomes entirely clear that long expository monologues are to be the predominant technique utilized here, with no room left for quieter, more subtle moments. This isn't a family, this is carnage in motion, unlike any family you've ever seen, because relationships like this, by their very nature, can't stand the test of time.

Clearly, every family has some element of dysfunction and faces some sort of adversity. But underneath that, generally, is a baseline level of support, because that's what families are, the world's original support structure. And while people move away, and families become scattered to the wind over generations, it's rarely acrimonious, instead almost always a function of geography (and not pure hatred). "August: Osage County" wants to have it both ways here, it wants to trade on the emotional resonance of a loving family while giving everyone involved the less positive attributes of a rattlesnake. There are so many reveals, and loads of twists and turns, but they all end up feeling desperate. While it's a given that families around the world are complex, and capable of massively strange interactions, the only place you'll find a group of people and a set of conflicts like this is in an extremely overwritten movie.

SCORE: 4.8 / 10

Laremy wrote the book on film criticism. Plus, he has six pretty cool siblings.