TORONTO -- “August: Osage County” might be the first movie to win more Oscar nominations than rave reviews.
The movie, Tracy Letts’ adaptation of his Tony Award-winning play of family dysfunction and warfare, premiered Monday at the Toronto International Film Festival, earning an ovation from the audience (once the house lights were turned on to spotlight the cast members in attendance).
Social media immediately lit up with Oscar buzz, which will happen when you have 17-time Oscar nominee Meryl Streep playing Violet, a pill-popping, cancer-stricken monster of a mother. The moment she stumbles on screen, face pale, hair shorn, voice slurred, you can picture academy members reflexively writing her name on their Oscar ballots. This is Acting.
The story focuses on Violet’s family -- adult daughters Barbara (Julia Roberts), Karen (Juliette Lewis) and Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) -- who return to their stifling Oklahoma home (no wind sweeping over the plains here) with their own families on the occasion of a family crisis. Said home is suffocating with many rooms, each with a skeleton in its closet. Letts has trimmed his play, whittling it down to a two-hour running time, but the Weston family’s issues -- suicide, alcoholism, drug addiction, incest, pedophilia, bitterness, an overfondness for Eric Clapton’s “Lay Down Sally” -- remain present.
Critics have already laid into director John Wells’ “respectful to a fault” handling of the material (you can read a sampling here, here and here) and you get the feeling that this might just be the warmup for a full-on critical take-down when the movie opens on Christmas.
Would such a drubbing matter to Oscar voters? Probably not. Wells should have probably reigned in the performances of his acting ensemble, but members of the actors branch love them some scenery-chewing. (See Pacino, Al.) If the Screen Actors Guild gave its ensemble award for decibel readings, “August: Osage County” would easily win with its wall-to-wall screaming and Big Character Moments.
And, of course, the academy can’t get enough of Streep. You think they’re not going to nominate her, even if, when she dons a wig and sunglasses, she looks like she’s still grieving over Todd Haynes not asking her to play “Blonde on Blonde"-era Bob Dylan in “I’m Not There.” Now she’ll likely be competing with the actress who did win the part. The thing is: “August: Osage County” didn’t change anything. It’s still Cate Blanchett’s year.