August: Osage County ★★★½

Let me give you a quick set of assembly instructions for putting together a “family crisis bottle episode” drama:

Step 1: Assemble an incredible array of talented actors into one room. Step 2: Give half of these actors a character that is arbitrarily reprehensible. The rest, make them chock-full of redeeming qualities but with one glaring personality trait (for better or worse) at which the reprehensible half will target their spite. Step 3: Whittle the cast down one a time for a couple of hours as all characters react in various degrees of exasperation and/or escape the poisonous vitriol.

August is a serious film, and there’s an incredible amount of spite, hateful wording and troubled history at play in this narrative. So much so that this would be a much, much better film if it was a comedy. In fact, it’s tonally impossible to tell how some of these scenes aren’t part of a dark comedy. But that’s really another way of saying that it’s tonally a bit of a mess, isn’t it?

Taken apart scene by scene, the film is composed of strong vignettes with well-realized characters, all performed flawlessly. Each scene, which serves to either connect or further entangle the members of this dysfunctional family, is a masterclass in acting. But on the whole, the film doesn’t arc in the way it needs to, nor does it offer any reward for bearing its runtime. It's pacing is broken. You won’t find any honest redemption or be remotely satisfied by its outcome. And maybe that’s the point, but it’s not really a movie I’d ever enjoy returning to.

It’s futile to go through the film actor-by-actor and pick out the standouts because, truth be told, almost everyone here is at the top of their game. It’s almost unbelievable that the academy could only pick two actors (and surely Streep is beyond deserving again here). But I suppose the strongest two are the ones with the most screen time, so somehow that makes sense. And before I forget, I was surprised to see Gustavo Santaolalla’s name in the credits, as his music in August is much more by-the-numbers, in the same way that the film itself feels directed. Good, as expected, but nothing that really grabbed me.

I’m not quite sure how drastically August has been adapted from the original play, but it certainly shows its origins in how the film is composed, for better or worse. I’ll assume worse.

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