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

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989)
(SPOILERS) There’s Jaws, there’s Star Wars, and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy, to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “mainly boring”.

Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the system when Burton did it (even…

I'm reliable, I'm a very good listener, and I'm extremely funny.

Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)
(SPOILERS) When I wrote my 23 to see in 2019, I speculated that James Cameron might be purposefully giving his hand-me-downs to lesser talents because he hubristically didn’t want anyone making a movie that was within a spit of the proficiency we’ve come to expect from him. Certainly, Robert Rodriguez and Tim Miller are leagues beneath Kathryn Bigelow, Jimbo’s former spouse and director of his Strange Days screenplay. Miller’s no slouch when it comes to action – which is what these movies are all about, let’s face it – but neither is he a craftsman, so all those reviews attesting that Terminator: Dark Fate is the best in the franchise since Terminator 2: Judgment Day may be right, but there’s a considerable gulf between the first sequel (which I’m not that big a fan of) and this retcon sequel to that sequel.

So you want me to be half-monk, half-hitman.

Casino Royale (2006)
(SPOILERS) Despite the doubts and trepidation from devotees (too blonde, uncouth etc.) that greeted Daniel Craig’s casting as Bond, and the highly cynical and low-inspiration route taken by Eon in looking to Jason Bourne's example to reboot a series that had reached a nadir with Die Another Day, Casino Royale ends up getting an enormous amount right. If anything, its failure is that it doesn’t push far enough, so successful is it in disarming itself of the overblown set pieces and perfunctory plotting that characterise the series (even at its best), elements that would resurge with unabated gusto in subsequent Craig excursions.

For the majority of its first two hours, Casino Royale is top-flight entertainment, with returning director Martin Campbell managing to exceed his excellent work reformatting Bond for the ‘90s. That the weakest sequence (still good, mind) prior to the finale is a traditional “big” (but not too big) action set piece involving an attempt to…

The more you drive, the less intelligent you are.

Repo Man (1984)
In fairness, I should probably check out more Alex Cox’s later works. Before I consign him to the status of one who never made good on the potential of his early success. But the bits and pieces I’ve seen don’t hold much sway. I pretty much gave up on him after Walker. It seemed as if the accessibility of Repo Man was a happy accident, and he was subsequently content to drift further and further down his own post-modern punk rabbit hole, as if affronted by the “THE MOST ASTONISHING FEATURE FILM DEBUT SINCE STEVEN SPIELBERG’S DUEL” accolade splashed over the movie’s posters (I know, I have a copy; see below).

This popularity of yours. Is there a trick to it?

The Two Popes (2019)
(SPOILERS) Ricky Gervais’ Golden Globes joke, in which he dropped The Two Popes onto a list of the year’s films about paedophiles, rather preceded the picture’s Oscar prospects (three nominations), but also rather encapsulated the conversation currently synonymous with the forever tainted Roman Catholic church; it’s the first thing anyone thinks of. And let’s face it, Jonathan Pryce’s unamused response to the gag could have been similarly reserved for the fate of his respected but neglected film. More people will have heard Ricky’s joke than will surely ever see the movie. Which, aside from a couple of solid lead performances, probably isn’t such an omission.

You guys sure like watermelon.

The Irishman aka I Heard You Paint Houses (2019)
(SPOILERS) Perhaps, if Martin Scorsese hadn’t been so opposed to the idea of Marvel movies constituting cinema, The Irishman would have been a better film. It’s a decent film, assuredly. A respectable film, definitely. But it’s very far from being classic. And a significant part of that is down to the usually assured director fumbling the execution. Or rather, the realisation. I don’t know what kind of crazy pills the ranks of revered critics have been taking so as to recite as one the mantra that you quickly get used to the de-aging effects so intrinsic to its telling – as Empire magazine put it, “you soon… fuggadaboutit” – but you don’t. There was no point during The Irishman that I was other than entirely, regrettably conscious that a 75-year-old man was playing the title character. Except when he was playing a 75-year-old man.

Look, the last time I was told the Germans had gone, it didn't end well.

1917 (2019)
(SPOILERS) When I first heard the premise of Sam Mendes’ Oscar-bait World War I movie – co-produced by Amblin Partners, as Spielberg just loves his sentimental war carnage – my first response was that it sounded highly contrived, and that I’d like to know how, precisely, the story Mendes’ granddad told him would bear any relation to the events he’d be depicting. And just why he felt it would be appropriate to honour his relative’s memory via a one-shot gimmick. None of that has gone away on seeing the film. It’s a technical marvel, and Roger Deakins’ cinematography is, as you’d expect, superlative, but that mastery rather underlines that 1917 is all technique, that when it’s over and you get a chance to draw your breath, the experience feels a little hollow, a little cynical and highly calculated, and leaves you wondering what, if anything, Mendes was really trying to achieve, beyond an edge-of-the-seat (near enough) first-person actioner.

This is one act in a vast cosmic drama. That’s all.

Audrey Rose (1977)
(SPOILERS) Robert Wise was no stranger to high-minded horror fare when he came to Audrey Rose. He was no stranger to adding a distinctly classy flavour to any genre he tackled, in fact, particularly in the tricky terrain of the musical (West Side Story, The Sound of Music) and science fiction (The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Andromeda Strain). He hadn’t had much luck since the latter, however, with neither Two People nor The Hindenburg garnering good notices or box office. In addition to which, Audrey Rose saw him returning to a genre that had been fundamentally impacted by The Exorcist four years before. One might have expected the realist principals he observed with The Andromeda Strain to be applied to this tale of reincarnation, and to an extent they are, certainly in terms of the performances of the adults, but Wise can never quite get past a hacky screenplay that wants to impart all the educational content of a serious study of continued existence in tandem w…