Thursday, April 10, 2014

"August: Osage County": Prefers To Pain Rather Than Entertain

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It's good for a movie to convey a message.  In fact, that's what separates a great film from a bad one.  It's also what separates the more literary films from the more mindless ones.  Not that there isn't a place for both types of films, but I'm definitely someone who likes to think a bit more while watching a movie.  However, one thing a less sophisticated action flick or comedy can have going for it is it's pure entertainment value.  Sure, I may not need to exercise much brainpower to appreciate a superhero movie, but if the movie knows what it is and it entertains through good action, then I think we can call the movie a success.  But what if a film is of a more cerebral variety, but it's not very entertaining?  That's the conundrum I come away with after watching August: Osage County.  There's a fairly well thought out story here with a deep message, but the film itself is somewhat painful to sit through.

This is the story of a family mourning the loss of its patriarch.  The role of the matriarch is played by Meryl Streep, who gives a stellar performance as a pill-abusing and emotionally abusive woman who is both a product of her upbringing, her grief, her abandonment issues, and the deluded state her drug habit puts her in.  I can see why the Academy deigned to nominate Streep for Best Actress, for it truly is one of last year's best performances.  The rest of the cast is also quite well acted, with Julia Roberts shining in a fantastic supporting role as Streep's eldest daughter.

The message the film gets across is largely one of generational emotional abuse, passing the pain caused by the characters' upbringing on to those the characters love.  It's pretty well done, too, showing how different members of the family deal with the complexes the older generation passed down to them, just as their parents did and continue to do.  But while I understand the point of the story and appreciate the emotional impact that it has, the film itself is frankly quite uncomfortable.  Most of the dialogue consists of characters yelling at each other.  I get it that these characters only really come together out of a sense of familial obligation at the loss of a mutually loved one, but the hatred they exude eventually gets to a point where its unrelenting and I didn't find myself enjoying the experience.  I know that this was intentional, but maybe it was too good at what it was trying to accomplish.

See, the film makes the point it's trying get across fairly evident early on.  But if a film is going to do that, it needs to develop past that point and make its characters grow.  If I understand the moral forty-five minutes into a movie, the movie needs to recognize the intelligence of its audience and show its characters growing and evolving in some way to provide a feeling of catharsis.  This film fails to do that.  Instead, the film batters at the audience, using the characters' hatred for one another as a proxy.

I appreciate what this film was trying to be, and I also recognize that the characters' failure to grow is part of the tragedy of the story.  However, the redundant discomfort that pervades the film is unforgivable.  I applaud the actors involved for some fantastic performances, but the film itself isn't saved by their efforts.  In the end, this is a good story, but it's so painfully delivered that I can't recommend it.

What are your thoughts on what makes a good story?  Let me know in the comments below.

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