Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Back to Good Old English: Soaring Performances in "Osage County"

            Something about an airplane ride calls for a movie. Maybe it's sitting confined in a small place for a long time with a tiny screen staring at you from the back of the seat in front of you. Among hundreds of strangers. Wondering if the flight attendant will return with another bottle of good red wine.
            Anyway, on offer (as the Brits say) was "August: Osage County." With many A-list Hollywood actors including one who in my opinion shines every moment he's on screen, Chris Cooper. No doubt I'm biased, since he lives in Massachusetts near Plymouth, where we used to live. And maybe because he comes from the part of the country, Kansas City, close to the film's Oklahoma setting -- the "Great Plains" as the film calls it -- or maybe it's just because he's an incredible actor.... but every scene in which it appears feels like the god of wisdom -- in the form of some execcedingly practical, decent, Plains-man, foot-on-the-ground sort of guy -- has arrived on a troubled scene to speak sense, or express compassion, or decency, or just generally do the right thing. Does just being good to one another, his character (Uncle Charlie) asks in "Osage County," have to be so hard?
            Anyway, whether staying put out of necessity (on an airplane) or choice (in a theater), seeing the movie rewards your time with interest. It's a hugely compelling piece. Some critics say they liked the Broadway play on which it was based better; that the work remains essentially a filmed play rather than a film, and the movie does limit itself to a few changes of scene. But this narrowed focus comes as a relief to those of us who care more about language and character than explosions and chase scenes. My wife Anne, who found the film first, said it had more language in it than any movie we're likely to see, and after spending a few weeks in Francophone and Arabic-speaking countries, hearing so much English so well spoken was balm to my ears.  
            The action takes place a few settings. The family home, several rooms in a big house on the plains. Some encounters in the house yard outdoors, a few car scenes. By not dashing around, the movie keeps our attenion where it wants it. It stays on point, gets up close to the characters and lets them do what they have to do. It's an actors' film. A feast of talk, barbed though much of it is.
            And after enduring hours of incomprehensible announcements in the Paris airport -- and having recently taken the intemperate step of walking out of a should-be-interesting academic program in Lebanon's English-speaking university because the two speakers (one, a Syrian, doing his best) were murdering the English language -- even listening to Julia  Roberts wield the f-word to strong effect was a sweet relief. It's also a relief that Roberts isn't required to play "beautiful" in this film, her best acting job I've seen. She gives a moving, rawly emotional performance as an often unlikable woman who's being left by her husband for a younger woman. So, yeah, she's suffering and she has inherited her mother's wicked mouth.
            Her 'daddy's favorite daughter' character stands up to her physically ill and mentally cruel mother's bullying even as she fails to keep her own family together, impatient with her insufferable-adolescent daughter, undercutting her insecure husband. When she says to her husband "You're not ever coming back to me, are you" -- wait a beat -- "And I'm never going to understand why, am I?" you want to cry for the sheer painful truth of the moment. You don't want to be there, but you're moved. Ordinarily, people don't recognize these kinds of truths; and if they should happen to realize them, they don't say them.
            That's why we need theater and film.
            Meryl Streep is riveting, no surprise, in the part of the scorched-earth, nothing-left-to-lose mother. Her character is even more unlikable since her cancer, drug use, and rigid bigotted personality often render her as Mrs. Nasty among the pygmies in the family dynamic scenes -- these are the clips shown in the trailer -- but the depth and subtlety of her character need the full arc of the story to reveal her strength and intelligence. At the end she reminds us of the much "softer" addict-mother in O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey into Night."
            Pretty much everything is awful in this story of the unraveling of this family dynamic -- it's no spoiler to say that Streep's husband, an alcoholic has-been poet, disappears causing the family gathering and is found dead as an apparent suicide victim: that's what the trailer shows -- but when in a parallel, connected plot a second family starts to come apart, Cooper's  'Charlie' has a final chance to speak up for love, compassion, doing the right thing in protecting his son from his own wife's abusive tongue.
            Charlie is an ordinary guy, he drinks beer and watches the game. His wife (another great character role) brings the showy fun to her fat lady middle-American -- but his presence lends the ballast to film's flights of destructions.
            The film kept me flying right as well. Far above the Atlantic.
            When it was over I thought, 'thank goodness, something to get me over the hump.' Only four hours left to Logan.