I saw an early, private test screening of “August: Osage County” on April 4 in Kansas City. (The film isn’t scheduled for official release until November.) I’ve hesitated to post comments for a couple of reasons. First, I wanted to give myself a little calendar distance from the actual viewing so that I could shake out any immediate, and maybe overly enthusiastic, response. (I love Meryl. I also love the play, which I’ve seen four times thus far.) Second, I feel a little weird about providing comments at all. After all, the project is still in development, the director (John Wells) is still doing his work, and the final product next November may look quite different from what I saw on April 4.
That said, I suspect that the filmmakers not only expected to get audience response but also for word to begin spreading about their film. After all, even at this early stage they must know that it’s something terrific. Short of belaboring what you may have already heard: Meryl Streep’s work here is among the most astonishing in a career that feels like it tops itself every few years. For me, there’s one obvious reason why this stands above nearly everything. Not only is she giving a great performance…she’s working with great material. We all know that’s one of the legit criticisms of some of her cinematic resume: She is often the best part of any project, as either the material is “adequate” (but not art) or the direction is “standard” (but not stellar). That’s not the case here, obviously. The film is carefully adapted by Tracy Letts from his landmark play (both a Pulitzer and Tony winner), and most of his amazing text is intact. So for a rare cinematic moment, Meryl is working with material that challenges her, her co-stars, and the audience. And she not only rises to the occasion, she triumphs. Will it win her another (a fourth) Oscar? There are so many politics involved in that (not least of which is that pesky win for “The Iron Lady” two seasons ago…a throbbing example of fine craftsmanship in spite of sloppy material). Streep’s work as Violet Weston in “August: Osage County” will be hailed as one of her best performances to date. It will win her many critics awards (which isn’t always the case with Meryl). And, yes, it will be an undeniable nominee for everything else. Even her detractors will be charmed by the long sections of comedic brilliance that sprout from some fertile, heavy drama.
What about the other actors? The film is so well done – and it’s certainly not DONE, with some questionable musical interludes, an oddity at the very end that I hope doesn’t stick around for the final cut, and some shaky transitions between scenes that need to be smoothed out – that it’s hard to be part of this film and not come off looking polished. I would venture to say that there’s some heavy-duty “acting” going on in some corners that feels like competitive fervor opposite Streep. This rattled me in Julia Roberts’ performance, especially in the early scenes, but the three people I saw this screening with were all fans of her work here. So, as with anything, I bow to different perspectives.
If I were handing out Oscar nominations just based on this early viewing, the no-brainers would be Picture, Director, Streep (Best Actress), Chris Cooper (Supporting Actor), and Juliette Lewis (Supporting Actress), Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Costumes. I’ve seen some early comments that disliked Lewis’ work here…I don’t get that. She’s exciting every time she’s on screen and thoroughly understands who that character is from the moment she arrives to the moment she departs. Cooper’s work is quiet, but he has a couple of scenes that are honest and heartbreaking…and real showcases for his extraordinary talent.
There’s been a lot of advance speculation about Margo Martindale and Benedict Cumberbatch. Both are certainly standouts who may also be awards bait. My sense is that their work isn’t there enough (or showy enough) to rise in competitive fields. Even Sam Shepard, in his brief appearance (and I HOPE none of that is cut), is recognition-worthy.
What I loved: Meryl’s performance, Tracy Letts’ adaptation, Chris Cooper, Juliette Lewis, the set design, costumes, cinematography, and, yes, John Wells’ respectful direction…and that amazing family dinner scene, which I could watch over and over (most especially for Meryl’s detailed, scary, hilarious, maybe-best-of-her-career-thus-far work).
Who I also enjoyed: Dermot Mulroney, Julianne Nicholson, Margo Martindale, Benedict Cumberbatch, Sam Shepard, Misty Upham
Wow, I hope they fix this: that final scene
What they’re obviously still working on: editing and music (I hope)
Meh (for me): Julia Roberts (and it troubles me that I’m struggling with that one…I could be way off base here), Ewan McGregor (struggling with the accent), Abigail Breslin (uncomfortably one-note…she seems nervous, not ballsy as that character should be)
Wow, I feel kind of icky spilling the beans on something that is still being created. But I know the Streep fans are curious (and generally respectful). Bottom line: She is (preditably but satisfyingly) astonishing here.