Skip to main content

Eat the fish, bitch!

August: Osage County
(2013)

(SPOILERS) Take one Pulitzer Prize Winning play, sprinkle an assortment of award-winning actors and actresses, aloow to cool for several months then serve just before the end of the year; presto, Weinstein Oscar bait. It’s difficult not be cynical about the motives of the big brothers, less so co-producers George Clooney and Grant Heslov who seem to be genuinely motivated by the desire to make mainstream material for post-adolescents (albeit to varying degrees of success). August: Osage County wears its stage origins on its sleeve – this is an actor’s seventh heaven – and consequently a performance-hoover ethic lies at the root of both its best and worst qualities.


I was relatively onside with the acting grandstand during the first half of August. At first the gathered family members provoke eventful and engaging conflicts with fruitful chemistry as familiar faces strike sparks off each other. Unfortunately Tracy Letts (also an actor, most visibly as Senator Lockhart in Homeland) allows didacticism and cynicism to take control of story and character by the time we reach the third act. Revelations are designed to prop up a plot that has exhausted its immediate focus, and the paralleling of drug-addled matriarch Violet (Meryl Streep) with eldest daughter Barbara (Julia Roberts) is so thunderingly brazen that the previous (sometimes relishable) extravagant theatrics look staid and reserved by comparison. Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising. Letts’ previous film adaptations have been the William Friedkin duo (both acclaimed to some degree as returns to form for the dingy-minded director) Bug and Killer Joe. Subtlety wasn’t on the agenda in those either, and becomes a bludgeon when refracted through Billykins’ typically mean-spirited lens. 


I can’t testify to the stage to screen changes that may have taken place (although I’m aware the ending was revised after negative test screenings), but the strongest response August elicits is a wash of familiarity. Letts adopts one of the writer’s favourite mainstays; the gathering. These can range from family settings (as here) such as The Myth of Fingerprints and Home for the Holidays to bereavements (as here) such as The Big Chill. Such pieces tend to be attractive, recipes promising readily available ingredients. They are also deal for the confinements of the stage. All parties are assembled in one location, and there’s an opportunity to serve up equal lashings of drama and comedy. I don’t know the standards Pulitzer require, but in film form August is caught in a predictable comfort zone of family strife, one we’ve seen rehearsed many times before; domineering parents reduced to states of immaturity while bewildered adult children struggle to adjust to the role reversals and nurse long-dormant rivalries.


Which is not to say such themes can’t be revisited any number of times; the only demand is a waft of freshness. For all that I found Letts’ Friedkin adaptations patchy affairs, I can’t deny that they’re different. August lacks this. It’s content to coast on knowing it will extract some meaty moments from clockwork altercations across the dinner table. And, of course it does. And they’re irresistible, until the dust settles and we realise we’re being subjected to flagrant manipulation with nothing invested behind it.


When Sam Shephard’s dad fishes up dead, having finally had enough of his erratic spouse, the funeral brings three sibling daughters back to the family home. Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) never strayed far from her parents’ side, but Barbara and Karen (Juliette Lewis) steered a wide berth. Dad was a drinker-poet, but it was their domineering and abrasive mum who caused them to take flight. Each has her hang-ups, of course. Ivy resents being put in the position of the good daughter, and is pursuing a nascent and covert relationship with first cousin Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch). Barbara’s marriage to Bill (Ewan McGregor) is disintegrating, and she is displaying symptoms of her mother’s cruel streak. Their daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin) is your average difficult teenager. Karen is a bit of an airhead, blundering into a shallow relationship with creepy fiancé Steve (Dermot Mulroney, delivering the full sleaze) who seems more interested in her fourteen year old niece. Add to the mix that Violet is undergoing treatment for mouth cancer, that her sister Mattie Fae (the peerless Margo Martindale, rightly in demand since her sterling turn in Justified) treats son Charles like dirt, and that her hubby Charles (senior, Chris Cooper) is getting a bit fed up with her maligning the boy, and you have a pressure cooker set to blow.


As noted, it’s not that much of this is set up is recognisable, or that the character types are well worn, it’s that Letts is unable to add anything new to the mix. Of course, there’s a dirty family secret. It would have been much more daring if there hadn’t been one (particularly as here it’s a signal of a story running out of places to go and desperate to reignite the embers). Some of the casting decisions tend to reinforce this déjà vu. The wonderful Andrea Riseborough had to drop out of the picture, but replacing her with Lewis, in a typically coquettish (albeit aging coquettish) part is just tiresome. Can’t Lewis play it any other way? The Brits on board have varying success. Everyone loves Cumberbatch, but I was too conscious of him essaying a mannered, fragile American. The trappings of accent and tics get in the way of what is, beneath it all, an affecting performance. In contrast McGregor, who no one has a good word to say about when he plays an American and often at any other time, is surprisingly effective.  This may be because he’s underplaying while everyone else is grabbing hold of Yorick’s skull and running with it, but I enjoyed his light touch (“No, actually ‘forsook’ is also an acceptable usage”). He isn’t really given much of a character, though. Bill is essentially reactive to Violet, which means that, intentionally or otherwise, we tend sympathise with him even though his affair is the main cause of their break-up.


Cooper and Martindale are magnificent, even when the latter has to go through the tired old business of giving his wife an ultimatum (they’ve been married for 37 years, but they may not get to 38 if she can’t find a place in her heart for Little Charles). On the other hand, he gets some great moments with Cumberbatch, and his icebreaker at the central dinner scene is everything it should be (“I got a big bite of fear!”). Martindale intuitively knows precisely how to moderate a turn from playful and sympathetic to harsh and judgemental; unfortunately, either the screenplay or the editing makes these transitions seem abrupt and manufactured. She’s nice as pie, except when it comes to that son with whom she’s a completely different person (and we may get told why this is, but it doesn’t resonate as an emotional truth; “I’m disappointed for him more than anything”).


This is meant as Streep and Roberts’ show at its root, though. The struggle for power between mother and daughter. I’ve never been Roberts’ greatest fan; most of her performances are personality-driven (she isn’t one to metamorphose like Streep), so if you don’t warm to her on that level there isn’t much else to appreciate. Added to that, it must be a good decade since she had a memorable part. She’s does solid work here, though. Maybe playing against Streep pushes her to up her game, and the shouting matches certainly give her something solid to get her teeth into. This is a fairly unnuanced role, alternating between sympathetic (having to deal with crazy mum) and dislikeable (slapping her daughter, assuming the elder sibling’s position of dominance), but it has some tasty moments such as (physically) attacking her mother over dinner. Barbara only loses her potency when Letts feels the need to overstate everything. If a line like “Eat the fish, bitch!” extracts an easy laugh, her “I am running thing’s now!” is desperately crude. After this there’s an inevitable tail-off; mother and daughter attempt understanding while the manipulation of Ivy underlines how Barbara is a chip off the old block (it’s curious that the revised ending is seen as more positive; only really in so much as it doesn’t end on a shot of Streep; it doesn’t suggest Barbara won’t end up like Violet, only that she rejects the idea of being like her mother).


Roberts received an Oscar nomination, as did Meryl the Peryl. I’ve grown to enjoy a good Streeping over the past couple of decades. Prior to that, I invariably found her new and exotic accents off-putting. That, and the inevitable annual Oscar-feting seemed like a lot of surface glorification of someone whose sharp suit is all anyone is looking at. This, though… This is a definite backwards step. It’s Meryl giving a PERFORMANCE. It has Oscar lust all over it, so it’s no wonder she garnered a nomination. It’s a role that feeds on all the actress’s worst instincts. Showy, affected, running the gamut of emotions. She’s got acting coming out of her ears. She’s a smorgasbord of acting. There’s no connection with Violet because she’s an idea of a character, not someone who feels remotely inhabited. She wouldn’t look out of place as a Disney villain, minus the pill popping; she’s such a caricature (just when you think she can’t get any less humane, there’s one of those all-important revelations to confirm just what a monster continues to reside within). Those assembled are subjected to a giddy torrent of abuse; her anecdote about a claw hammer, her supremely dyspeptic responses to anyone and everyone, her casual racism (referring to Misty Upham’s home help as an Indian) and delight in causing offence (“Why don’t you go fuck a fucking sow’s ass?”). Every actor loves a drunk performance, although few can do one well, and Streep revels in being off her tits on a cocktail of prescription meds. But she seems to be having a much better time than us, as superficially enjoyable as her dinner table theatrics are. Inevitably, the picture fizzles after this (structurally it is problematic, as the drama tapers off) and there were only one of two likely endings. The good daughter, trapped, is resigned to looking after mum ‘til she dies (like a less darkly comic Steptoe and Son), or mum is left all on her own.


If Streep’s tack is one of bigger broader better, it’s telling that the best performance and the one that walks off with the movie is the most restrained (and went unnoticed by the awards ceremonies). Julianne Nicholson, with whom I was mainly familiar from her role in Boardwalk Empire, is hugely sympathetic as the daughter who didn’t kick against la mère. She’s unable to wonders, as some of her – and everyone’s – dialogue is garishly over-written, but even when talking about family bonds as no more than a “random selection of cells” she imbues Ivy with a kernel of truth. Since Ivy and Little Charles have the only genuine and heartfelt relationship in the piece, it’s only natural that Letts should feel the need to disavow it. That he does so with a device as cheap as the discovery they are (half) brother and sister is the final nail in the chest of any hope this might be a less than systematically calculated concoction.


Nevertheless, the Weinsteins’ wisdom succeeds on at least one level. The array of thesps propping up August: Orange County ensures it is rarely dull. For at least half its running time this is a routine but engaging family drama, with its share of laughs and tumult. The damage is only really done when we realise Letts doesn’t have any place special to go with his family of explosive women and weak or useless men.


***

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

No matter how innocent you are, or how hard you try, they’ll find you guilty.

The Wrong Man (1956) (SPOILERS) I hate to say it, but old Truffaut called it right on this one. More often than not showing obeisance to the might of Hitchcock during his career-spanning interview, the French critic turned director was surprisingly blunt when it came to The Wrong Man . He told Hitch “ your style, which has found its perfection in the fiction area, happens to be in total conflict with the aesthetics of the documentary and that contradiction is apparent throughout the picture ”. There’s also another, connected issue with this, one Hitch acknowledged: too much fidelity to the true story upon which the film is based.

He’s so persistent! He always gets his man.

Speed (1994) (SPOILERS) It must have been a couple of decades since I last viewed Speed all the way through, so it’s pleasing to confirm that it holds up. Sure, Jan de Bont’s debut as a director can’t compete with the work of John McTiernan, for whom he acted as cinematographer and who recommended de Bont when he passed on the picture, but he nevertheless does a more than competent work. Which makes his later turkeys all the more tragic. And Keanu and Sandra Bullock display the kind of effortless chemistry you can’t put a price tag on. And then there’s Dennis Hopper, having a great old sober-but-still-looning time.

How would Horatio Alger have handled this situation?

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) (SPOILERS) Gilliam’s last great movie – The Zero Theorem (2013) is definitely underrated, but I don’t think it’s that underrated – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas could easily have been too much. At times it is, but in such instances, intentionally so. The combination of a visual stylist and Hunter S Thompson’s embellished, propulsive turn of phrase turns out, for the most part, to be a cosmically aligned affair, embracing the anarchic abandon of Raoul Duke and Doctor Gonzo’s Las Vegas debauch while contriving to pull back at crucial junctures in order to engender a perspective on all this hedonism. Would Alex Cox, who exited stage left, making way for the Python, have produced something interesting? I suspect, ironically, he would have diluted Thompson in favour of whatever commentary preoccupied him at the time (indeed, Johnny Depp said as much: “ Cox had this great material to work with and he took it and he added his own stuff to it ”). Plus

But everything is wonderful. We are in Paris.

Cold War (2018) (SPOILERS) Pawel Pawlikowski’s elliptical tale – you can’t discuss Cold War without saying “elliptical” at least once – of frustrated love charts a course that almost seems to be a caricature of a certain brand of self-congratulatorily tragic European cinema. It was, it seems “ loosely inspired ” by his parents (I suspect I see where the looseness comes in), but there’s a sense of calculation to the progression of this love story against an inescapable political backdrop that rather diminishes it.

He is a brigand and a lout. Pay him no serious mention.

The Wind and the Lion (1975) (SPOILERS) John Milius called his second feature a boy’s-own adventure, on the basis of the not-so-terrified responses of one of those kidnapped by Sean Connery’s Arab Raisuli. Really, he could have been referring to himself, in all his cigar-chomping, gun-toting reactionary glory, dreaming of the days of real heroes. The Wind and the Lion rather had its thunder stolen by Jaws on release, and it’s easy to see why. As polished as the picture is, and simultaneously broad-stroke and self-aware in its politics, it’s very definitely a throwback to the pictures of yesteryear. Only without the finger-on-the-pulse contemporaneity of execution that would make Spielberg and Lucas’ genre dives so memorable in a few short years’ time.

The game is rigged, and it does not reward people who play by the rules.

Hustlers (2019) (SPOILERS) Sold as a female Goodfellas – to the extent that the producers had Scorsese in mind – this strippers-and-crime tale is actually a big, glossy puff piece, closer to Todd Phillips as fashioned by Lorene Scarfia. There are some attractive performances in Hustlers, notably from Constance Wu, but for all its “progressive” women work male objectification to their advantage posturing, it’s incredibly traditional and conservative deep down.

Another case of the screaming oopizootics.

Doctor Who Season 14 – Worst to Best The best Doctor Who season? In terms of general recognition and unadulterated celebration, there’s certainly a strong case to be made for Fourteen. The zenith of Robert Holmes and Philip Hinchcliffe’s plans for the series finds it relinquishing the cosy rapport of the Doctor and Sarah in favour of the less-trodden terrain of a solo adventure and underlying conflict with new companion Leela. More especially, it finds the production team finally stretching themselves conceptually after thoroughly exploring their “gothic horror” template over the course of the previous two seasons (well, mostly the previous one).

What do they do, sing madrigals?

The Singing Detective (2003) Icon’s remake of the 1986 BBC serial, from a screenplay by Dennis Potter himself. The Singing Detective fares less well than Icon’s later adaptation of Edge of Darkness , even though it’s probably more faithful to Potter’s original. Perhaps the fault lies in the compression of six episodes into a feature running a quarter of that time, but the noir fantasy and childhood flashbacks fail to engage, and if the hospital reality scans better, it too suffers eventually.

That’s what people call necromancer’s weather.

The Changes (1975) This adaptation of Peter Dickinson’s novel trilogy carries a degree of cult nostalgia cachet due to it being one of those more “adult” 1970s children’s serials (see also The Children of the Stones , The Owl Service ). I was too young to see it on its initial screening – or at any rate, too young to remember it – but it’s easy to see why it lingered in the minds of those who did. Well, the first episode, anyway. Not for nothing is The Changes seen as a precursor to The Survivors in the rural apocalypse sub-genre – see also the decidedly nastier No Blade of Grass – as following a fairly gripping opener, it drifts off into the realm of plodding travelogue.

You were a few blocks away? What’d you see it with, a telescope?

The Eyes of Laura Mars (1978) (SPOILERS) John Carpenter’s first serial-killer screenplay to get made, The Eyes of Laura Mars came out nearly three months before Halloween. You know, the movie that made the director’s name. And then some. He wasn’t best pleased with the results of The Eyes of Laura Mars, which ended up co-credited to David Zelag Goodman ( Straw Dogs , Logan’s Run ) as part of an attempt by producer Jon Peters to manufacture a star vehicle for then-belle Barbra Streisand: “ The original script was very good, I thought. But it got shat upon ”. Which isn’t sour grapes on Carpenter’s part. The finished movie bears ready evidence of such tampering, not least in the reveal of the killer (different in Carpenter’s conception). Its best features are the so-uncleanly-you-can-taste-it 70s New York milieu and the guest cast, but even as an early example of the sub-genre, it’s burdened by all the failings inherit with this kind of fare.