EXPECTATIONS: Meryl Streep.
REALITY: Since she made her debut in the 1968 Berlin production of Hair!, Meryl Streep has proven herself a chameleon-like actress able to disappear into any role. When Olivia Hussey fell ill during principal photography for Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet, Meryl Streep dyed her hair brunette and picked up the slack. Hussey died two days later, but watching Romeo and Juliet now, you'd never know the difference. She's just that good. And that's why she's been nominated for an Academy Award every year since - two in 2009, when she became the first actress-programmer to earn a visual effects award, for her work on the motion-capture technology that gave us Avatar and Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole. We laughed when she wore Prada. We cried when she made her choice. We clapped thunder when Jakesully jammed his tail into Neytiri's memory hole, thanks to Meryl Streep's tech wizardry.
Pictured: (left to right) Meryl Streep, Meryl Streep.But honestly, guys, I sometimes wonder if the praise is too much. Maybe she's gotten too powerful. I'm sure you remember when the Academy attempted to bar her from any future awards in 1998. The next year, she resurfaced as Amy Adams. And now she's the hardest-working actresses in Hollywood. In 2013, she was in 43 movies that we know of, stealing top billing under various names: Jennifer Lawrence, Scarlett Johansson and Léa Seydoux, just to name a few. In R'lyehian, "Meryl Streep" is an anagram for "Cthulhu." There's a reason each of their names contains three syllables. According to a recent Variety article, she will be the only actress working in Hollywood by 2029. And if TMZ's reports are true, she drinks the blood of virgins for breakfast, all but ensuring immortality and invitingly radiant skin.
That said, I'm of two minds as I set out to review August: Osage County. On the one hand, we all know Meryl Streep must be stopped, as her all-consuming talent will surely spell the end of everything. On the other, I can't resist her. I know she deserves one last Oscar, even the one that might finally plunge us into darkness, for her turn as Violet Weston, the pill-popping matriarch of a dysfunctional Oklahoma clan. Her husband, Beverly (Sam Shepard, thanks to puppetry by Meryl Streep), abandons her one day and her daughters - Barbara (Julia Roberts, as played by Meryl Streep), Ivy (Julianne Nicholson, as played by Meryl Streep) and Karen (Juliette Lewis, as played by Meryl Streep) - converge on the family home to a) help her through a difficult time, b) argue with her about fucking everything and c) try to take her pills away. If Tracy Letts hadn't adapted the screenplay from his own Pulitzer Prize-winning play, this could pass as a particularly well-written episode of Intervention, albeit one starring Meryl Streep in every conceivable role.
Letts, whose plays formed the basis of Current Releases favorites Bug and Killer Joe, tones down the nihilistic amorality here. Unlike the characters in those films, the Westons are intermittently likable. I'm both happy and sad to report there are no tooth-pulling or fast-food sexual assaults to be found. In their stead, we have a dark, disturbing performance from Meryl Streep - as well as three other performances from Meryl Streep (four, if you're counting Abigail Breslin, but I'm not totally convinced she's another of Meryl Streep's many avatars, although she would be wise to avoid her lest she drinks her blood) - as she absolutely nails the mannerisms of an Oklahoma woman whose use of OxyContin and Xanax, among many other drugs, occasionally rockets her to the heights of incoherent histrionics. For her part, Meryl Streep-as-Julia Roberts holds her ground against Meryl Streep, infusing their shared scenes with a comic intensity that somehow makes "JUST EAT THE FUCKING FISH!" one of the funniest lines in recent memory. And the scene in which the Westons sit down for a somber family dinner, only as an excuse for Violet to passive-aggressively pit her daughters against each other and their husbands, is a masterpiece of controlled anarchy and comic timing.
Pictured: (left to right) Meryl Streep, Margaret Thatcher, Meryl Streep.
In many ways, August: Osage County is a retaliatory assault on the kind of Southern-fried comedic melodramas that found success around the turn of the '90s - Fried Green Tomatoes, Steel Magnolias and the like - but it's more Flannery O'Connor than Fannie Flagg. There's Southern Gothic and then there's this film, howling in the basement with depictions of and mannered allusions to a wide span of taboo topics. And the reverence those films showed for Southern matriarchs is here inverted: Violet is unpleasant neither because she wants to be nor has to be. Rather, her vitriol is the result of ... well, I won't spoil that. The point is, Meryl Streep knocks it out of the park.
August: Osage County is less successful at convincing us we're watching a movie and not a play. Sure, Letts adapts his play in such a manner that characters exchange dialogue in more interesting places - a car, perhaps - but there are still identifiable act breaks, monologues (during which Meryl Streep stops short of addressing the audience directly), and perfectly timed entrances and exits. There's some gorgeous cinematography of the Oklahoma landscape, but early in the film, we know what we're in for: These strong Southern women have some shit to hash out. Secrets will be spilled. Plates will be smashed. Lives will be changed. But thanks to Meryl Streep (as well as Meryl Streep, Meryl Streep and Meryl Streep), it really is a pleasure to watch it happen.
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