Welcome to the O.C., Bitch!

Access to arts and culture in St. Louis is pretty underrated, but I do wish theater was a bigger presence. Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of local troupes, and the Muny and Fox take care of most of the big shows, but it can be a challenge to track down performances of particular plays. If I wanted to see August: Osage County here, God knows how long I'd have to wait for someone to mount a production. Since seeing the play isn't in the cards, I opted for the new movie. Adaptations of plays don't have a great track record in cinema lately, so I went in with a certain amount of trepidation. Trepidation that was immediately validated.

For those who haven't heard of it, August: Osage County is the story of an Oklahoma family that reluctantly gathers when the patriarch leaves without a word, then commits suicide. His three daughters come back into town for the funeral, and the dysfunction of every character soon bubbles to the surface in a series of fights, secret-outing, and recrimination. Meryl Streep portrays the toxic mother, and Julia Roberts the headstrong eldest daughter who locks horns with her most often.

Plays are often specifically crafted to highlight explosive emotion and heightened tension, and when put onto film, that can read as melodramatic and hammy. That, I'm afraid, is exactly what happens here. Scenery is chewed with wild abandon; it seems that director John Wells told his actors that there is no such thing as "over the top" in this adaptation. Some of the character interactions are compelling, and some of the performances are admirable, but as a whole, this movie is a series of contrived, operatic rage bombs.

I do want to single out some of those great performances, though. It's surprising to me that in a movie with Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts would be the one to distinguish herself, but it's true. Streep is dependably good, but her character is a fairly two-dimensional shrew. Roberts could have fallen into the same trap, but embeds her character with a layer of pity and relatability that I appreciated. As far as the supporting cast, Julianne Nicholson and Chris Cooper are the MVPs, perhaps because they are playing characters who are not simply balls of neuroses, but people striving to make an unpleasant family as palatable as possible.

Everyone else is fine, though the progress that Ewan McGregor made with his American accent in Beginners has suffered a substantial backslide. The real issue is that this is a soap opera masquerading as a prestige picture. There are plenty of realistic, good stories about a crumbling family that could probably work as both a play and a movie. When it comes to this band of loonies, though, it's pretty apparent that these histrionics should have stayed on stage.

August: Osage County: C+


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