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Julianne Nicholson, Meryl Streep, and Margot Martindale in 'August: Osage County'Image: The Weinstein Company

Julianne Nicholson, Meryl Streep, and Margot Martindale in 'August: Osage County'

Because of this, most great plays are very talk-y, relying on dialogue to move things along. It's tough to imagine a car chase on a stage being anything other than comical.

Film (and television), by contrast, have some flexibility in how they shoot. They can more easily move around and employ other means (like action and locations) to move the story along. It's tricky to get a stage play shifted over to this medium in a way that viewers will enjoy, and though August: Osage County comes a whole lot closer to succeeding than many others (Doubt and Sweeney Todd spring to mind), it's still so reliant on talk that it's hard not to drift away mentally sometimes, or to grow weary and wish they'd all just go out for a walk for a bit.

But really, it's just difficult to watch a family eat itself alive for two and a half hours, though Letts's screenplay admirably balances comedy and tragedy and the film is often ruefully funny. Family dysfunction is all over the movies—it's Noah Baumbach's specialty, in films like The Squid and the Whale and Margot at the Wedding—but the Westons' dysfunction is particularly exquisitely rendered. Their tongues are sharp. They know exactly how to hurt one another. They're not afraid to kick the ones who are down, and the men, especially, are taking the brunt of it. It's hard to watch; even viewers who have relatively good families will find something here that hits a sore point.

Juianne Nicholson, Juliette Lewis, Dermot Mulroney, Benedict Cumberbatch, Chris Cooper, Ewan McGregor, Abigail Breslin, Julia Roberts, and Margot Martindale in 'August: Osage County'Image: The Weinstein Company

Juianne Nicholson, Juliette Lewis, Dermot Mulroney, Benedict Cumberbatch, Chris Cooper, Ewan McGregor, Abigail Breslin, Julia Roberts, and Margot Martindale in 'August: Osage County'

It's probably not an altogether bad thing to watch a movie like this at the holidays—if nothing else, it may help us all feel a little more grateful for our own families. But if you're looking for a film about family that isn't quite as painful, you might check out Alexander Payne's Nebraska, another movie featuring sharp-tongued dysfunction and long-buried secrets, but one in which love, however flawed, seems like it's going to win out.

Caveat Spectator

There are lots of f-bombs and a handful of crass references to female genitalia. The family matriarch is addicted to pills; several others smoke weed (including a teenager) or habitually drink to excess. Two characters are said to have had an affair. Another one has recently cheated on his wife. Characters discuss both a long-ago affair and borderline incest. A grown man attempts to seduce a teenager. One character hits another forcefully with a shovel several times. Family members are very mean to each other at times, and the vitriolic arguments and discussion of various characters' childhoods may cause problems for those with a family history of abuse.

Alissa Wilkinson is Christianity Today's chief film critic and assistant professor of English and humanities at The King's College in New York City. She tweets at @alissamarie.

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