August: Osage County
In the opening scene a young Cheyenne woman named Johnna (Misty Upham) is being hired by Sam Shepard as a cook-housekeeper-caretaker for his increasingly out-of-control pillhead wife, Meryl Streep. She is unflappable and outwardly impervious to the occasional racial digs offered by Meryl, but you just know that inside she is wondering “What is it with these crazy palefaces?” Finally, when she sees the fiancée of one of the three sisters who have gathered for the funeral of their father, coming on to a fourteen-year-old girl (Abigail Breslin) she never hesitates. She grabs a shovel and starts whaling the tar out of him. Which qualifies her as the sanest person in the house, and the only one with a reliable moral compass.
We seem to be on a roll here. Two movies in a row (the other one being the black-and-white Nebraska) have been set out on the bleak American prairie, a place that couldn’t be better designed to drive me crazy within two days. Add in the motley crew in that house and we could cut that down to a few hours before I was absolutely buggy. Here it’s Oklahoma, and here it’s in color, but it makes no difference, really. All those places are black and white and gray in my mind. You are welcome to the Midwest, because I have no use for it, and most of the people in it, at all.
There’s a formula for this type of play/movie. (This won the Pulitzer for Drama.) You gather a family that has both overt and hidden issues, put them in a pressure cooker, heat (it’s 108 degrees in Osage County this August), add a dash of Tennessee Williams, and wait for the mixture to explode. I’m not necessarily puttin’ it down, I’m just sayin’. It works or not depending on the quality of the writing and acting. Both are very good here. Need I mention that Meryl Streep inhabits the part totally, and all the others orbit around her awful radiance? I didn’t think so. Her part is one of the nastier I’ve encountered in recent years. You wonder (or I do, as one from a family that gets along pretty well) how the daughters put up with it for so long. They are all good: Julia Roberts, Juliette Lewis, and my favorite of the three, Julianne Nichols. (And all variants of Julia, oddly enough.)
Also worth a shout-out is Margo Martindale. Chris Cooper is good in a supporting role. And though it pains me to admit it, Ewan McGregor and Benedict Cumberbatch—a Scotsman and a Brit, for Chrissake!—are believable as Oklahomans. The writer, Tracy Letts, pitched a screaming fit when he heard of this casting, but had to relent when he saw the finished product. As did I. I wish I knew how actors from the UK do that. Americans don’t have nearly the success impersonating English people. Even I can usually hear the phoniness in the accents.