Thursday, 23 January 2014

August: Osage County (2013)

Let me tell you a story and you tell me: is it material for a comedy or a tragedy?
--Melinda and Melinda

The death of its patriarch brings the members of a dysfunctional family together in a reunion. They spare no meanness to make every moment excruciatingly painful for one another even as one skeleton after another lurches out of the family closet. Hilarity ensues.

The House of Atreus. King Lear. The collected works of Anton Chekov. Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Classic literature sells us the exquisite lie that happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Then we have the Great American Play, where 100 years of dysfunctional family reunions teach us that tales about unhappy families are all alike. So formulaic, it’s cookie cutter. So forgettable, it took one Wes Anderson to ensure that most films in this genre that are now worth remembering take after his work.

August: Osage County is not so much the latest dysfunctional American family reunion play as it is a sly parody of the genre. The familial loathing and vitriol in the play come across as funny because they are turned up to 11, like a love child of This is Spinal Tap and Fresno. We laugh not because the lines are funny in themselves but precisely because the lines represent a literary form of trolling at its own genre. We laugh not because of the amount of screaming and histrionics that take the place of characterisation and plot but precisely because all the screaming and histrionics are a sly wink towards the extremely loud and incredibly twitchy Acting and scenery chewing that wins awards in American theatre (and film as well).

More than an hour’s worth of script from the original play has been excised from the screen adaptation of August: Osage County. That shouldn’t matter. Your mileage will vary depending on whether you see the story as a comedy or a tragedy, and whether you watch the film itself as a straight genre film or a genre parody.

Either way, the over-the-top acting by Meryl Streep as the poisonous matriarch and Julia Roberts as the eldest, most resentful daughter lends itself equally to both ways to watch and enjoy the film. It’s a pity that the cinematography and direction falters at times and forgets entirely that the play worked best as a genre parody.

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