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August: Osage County

Year: 2013
Production Co: The Weinstein Company
Director: John Wells
Writer: Tracey Letts
Cast: Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Sam Shepard, Juliette Lewis, Abagail Breslin, Dermot Mulroney, Benedict Cumberbatch, Margo Martindale, Julianne Nichols

Not long after this film I watched John Wells' previous film, the excellent The Company Men, and though it was a drama as opposed to August: Osage County's black comedy, the two films show a deft hand at wrangling ensembles, making me wonder if that's what drew Wells to this movie based on Tracey Letts' play (and from her script).

It's an American Gothic Anna Karenina, paraphrasing the opening line about how unhappy families are all unhappy in their own way. When Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard) disappears one day from his idyllic rural home, the whole extended family is called in to help and support each other through the difficult time – if they can avoid killing each other.

Every single one of the people who converge on the Weston household are somewhere between clueless and miserable and usually with plenty of anger thrown in – from Weston daughters Barbara (Julie Roberts), Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) and Karen (Juliette Lewis) and their respective partners and children right up to family matriarch Violet (Streep), a woman who takes venom, opportunistic guilt-tripping, passive aggression and bile to spectacular new heights.

Scenes like the Thanksgiving dinner are as excruciating as they are delicious to behold. The veiled jabs and snipes are epically tragic-comic because Wells never plays it strictly for laughs. Nobody here is trying to be funny, they're all just trying to get on with their lives/hatred/divorces and get away again. Rarely has the hatred inherent in familial love been so perfectly captured. The tension spills over into an outright wrestling match on the floor of the Weston homestead just once, but it barely defuses the simmering tension.

Streep is as sublime as ever as Violet, as smart and sharp as she is guileless and bitter. Then there's Ivy's secret love affair with dopey cousin Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch) that can't possibly end well, Barbara's estrangement from husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) and Karen's creepy new boyfriend (Dermot Mulroney) putting the moves on Barbara and Bill's sullen teenage daughter Jean (Abagail Breslin) – leading to one of the movie's most overtly comic scenes when the Native American housekeeper Beverly hired before he disappeared runs into the yard in the middle of the night to attack the creep with a kitchen implement.

It's a great story well told, but you also can't help but appreciate the art of the acting craft, and even Streep does something we haven't seen from her in a long time playing a fictional character in an ensemble.

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