Toronto: 'August: Osage County' Earns Big Applause, But Divides Pundits (Analysis)

Scott Feinberg
The Hollywood Reporter
'August: Osage County,' 'Saving Mr. Banks' Heading to Napa Valley Film Festival

TORONTO -- On Monday evening I caught the Toronto International Film Festival's world premiere of August: Osage County, John Wells' big screen adaptation of Tracy Letts' Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning play, here at Roy Thomson Hall. The film, which was produced by George Clooney and Grant Heslov (who produced last year's best picture Oscar winner Argo), among others, features an amazing cast: Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Juliette Lewis, Julianne Nicholson, Dermot Mulroney, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Margo Martindale, Abigail Breslin, Sam Shepard and Misty Upham. The film earned sporadic applause after certain lengthy monologs, and then a lengthy standing ovation after the credits began to roll -- but only once the theater shined the spotlight on the cast. I imagine that the film will do decent business upon being released by The Weinstein Co. on Nov. 8 -- but, with regard to awards, I'm not sure that it will live up to the massive expectations that many have had for it.

The dialogue-heavy dramedy, which Wells -- who is best known for his work on TV, and who previously directed only one film, TWC's The Company Men (2010) -- unfolds largely like a filmed play. It revolves around three women (Roberts, Lewis and Nicholson) and their significant others (McGregor, Mulroney and Cumberbatch), plus other relatives (Martindale, Cooper and Breslin), who reunite at the Oklahoma home of their mother (Streep) following the suicide of their father (Shepard), whereupon they air their grievances with each other about how others present at the gathering have caused their lives to become terribly screwed up, in one way or another. To my mind, it's all a bit depressive and oppressive after a while -- we each have our own problems, so why would we want to go to a theater to spend hours listening to those of others, particularly without much resolution or closure?

The only answer, of course, is to see how some of our finest actors choose to portray them. Some do a very fine job, some earning rare mid-movie applause for their delivery of various monologues (i.e. Cooper). The best of the lot, though, are Streep and Martindale as sisters who have become the irrepressibly assertive matriarchs of their own messed-up families. My guess is that, if any members of this massive ensemble are to receive individual Oscar recognition, it would be Streep for best actress and Martindale for best supporting actress. (In a highly-competitive year, I'm not sure that I see picture or director noms in the cards, and even the aforementioned noms won't come without work.)

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TWC is a distributor that hoped for a film that would catch a word-of-mouth surge. It was apparently aiming to make that possible with a film like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) and Long Day's Journey Into Night (1962), but instead ends up with one that's more like Carnage (2011), featuring sparks of great performances but, unfortunately, no revelation or explanation for why we are asked to endure such acrimony. What are we supposed to come away from this experience thinking and feeling? That we are fortunate in that our problems are not as bad as these people's? I'm not sure that's going to prove enough for most awards voters, particularly in such a competitive year. And, based on my conversations with the other major awards bloggers at TIFF after the film, I don't think that I'm in the minority.

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