Year Released: 2013
Directed by: John Wells
Starring: Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Juliette Lewis, Julianne Nicholson, Chris Cooper, Ewan McGregor, Margo Martindale, Sam Shepard, Dermott Mulroney
(R, 130 min.)
(Genre: Drama, Dark Comedy)
“We build our own cages.” Paul Zindel
If you don’t like the heat, stay out of the kitchen, or any of the stifling, airless rooms in this Oklahoma farmhouse. And don’t sit down for the patriarch’s funeral dinner, either, unless you like the sound of crashing casserole dishes – mere cannon volley in the background of the real war going on at the table. But then you’d miss possibly the finest film of 2013.
Usually, I’m not into Hollywood’s obsession with comical dysfunctional families. I found Little Miss Sunshine highly overrated brass mistaken for gold by fawning critics. Last year’s hyped Silver Linings Playbook was a little better, an ode to dysfunction, almost a celebration of it, that pulled us in even as we realized we were being artfully manipulated by all the old tricks. It was everything we love and loathe about American culture and Hollywood – coarse, crude, and comic, yet also brashly candid and even painfully introspective.
And let’s not forget 2012’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, that had the cloying critics enthralled in what was essentially “anthropological voyeurism.” A film that, despite its poetic pretensions and overtones, had a lot in common with the condescending local color the History channel now spews out on a regular basis in such efforts as Reality TV-inspired Swamp People,American Pickers, and Pawn Stars. Just like going to a freak show, we loved to stare at nature’s macabre anomalies to be reassured of our relative normalcy.
And then came Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine where the neurotic New Yorker deconstructed Tennesse Williams, producing an overrated homage to dysfunctional narcissists, Allen himself being the chief among them.
And it’s just a few weeks ago that yours truly failed to join in the chorus of praise for American Hustle, instead seeing it as a reflection of Hollywood itself – its crass showmanship, self-obsession, and vulgar superficiality.
Different Drummer damned them with faint praise and even contempt because she saw them for what they were – contrived freak shows whose dark comedy seemed both artificial and inauthentic.
August: Osage County has none of that. These people are all too real. In fact, that is the reason so many critics feel uncomfortable in this family war zone that takes no prisoners. They would prefer the contrived happy endings that ensure Oscar gold – or it is brass, a supremely significant symbol if so. Popcorn movies with just enough edginess to reassure film critics of their literary depth.
August: Osage County is as harsh and unforgiving as the vast Oklahoma plains from which the characters arise. Chief among them is Meryl Streep’s matriarch, Violet Weston, “ a child of poverty, neglect, and abuse whose will to endure is inextricably tied up with the desire to fight and the need to wound.” (Charles Isherwood.)
And Violet has an uncanny way of knowing just where everyone’s vulnerabilities are. She smells out the troubles between her eldest, Barbara (Julie Roberts) and her unfaithful professor husband, even as they struggle to uphold the pretense of their crumbling marriage. Of course, Violet chooses the funeral dinner to do what she euphemistically calls “ a little true telling.”
Violet Weston: Truth is you just can't compete with a younger woman. It's just one of those unfair things in life. Is there a younger woman involved?
Barbara Weston: Isn't that enough on this topic?
Bill Fordham: Yes, there is a younger woman.
Violet Weston: Well, see? Odds are against you there, babe.
Her poor middle daughter, Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) who has loyally stayed nearby to keep tabs on her prescription drug addled mother, doesn’t fare much better, either.
Your shoulders are slumped and your hair’s all straight and you don’t wear makeup. You look like a lesbian. You’re a pretty girl, you could get a decent man if you spruced up. A bit, that’s all I’m saying.
It’s also at the dinner table that she derides Karen (Juliette Lewis), who has brought her latest boyfriend to the funeral. Her first shot across the bow – “You don’t bring a date to a funeral” – fails to do any damage, as Karen holds up her ring finger with a sizeable diamond on it, protesting that Steve (Dermott Mulroney) is not merely her date; he is her finance. Then it is Steve who must be annihilated, which Violet does with practiced finesse, easily surmising that Steve has been married before, not just once, but three times, as he has to admit to the assembled diners.
And as she does with her daughters, Meryl Streep holds the audience in bondage as well. The stage is hers, and she is in total control, even if she’s swaying in a drug-induced dance-step or teetering around without her well-coiffed wig, her chemo-ravaged hair fully on display.
That is, until Barbara decides to wrest control. The fray is precisely choreographed, like a violent ballet, and the triumphant Julie Roberts who croaks in baritone, “I’m running things now,” as she wrestles the bottle of pills from her mother, permanently erases any romantic comedy acting limitations falsely attached to her. In a real sense, that jarring statement is true of the actors as well.
It’s not just the character Barbara who is in control, we now realize, but Julia Roberts, the actress. She holds the stage with the legendary Meryl Streep as an equal demanding our respect. It is she who should be getting the Oscar buzz and not the fresh-faced Sandra Bullock, whose role in Gravity seems merely a space redo of 1994’s Speed, with Bullock once again a scared but determined ingénue forced to take control of a situation spiraling out of control. Julia Roberts has evolved and come into her own as a mature actress here. Bullock, at least not in this 2013 film, has not.
We will have no sugar-coated ending here, though we do have a scene tacked on that is supposed to mute some of the film’s final devastation. What is essential, though, is that almost everyone ends up where they are from their own doing, and there is a beautiful poetic justice in that that transcends the inner darkness as well as all the tacked on happy endings Harvey Weinstein and his crew have in their scripted playbooks.
If the funeral dinner is a violent ballet, then the fish lunch the next day is an opera, even if a profane one. And just like an opera, it is seeped in several levels of irony, as we and Barbara know the tragic complications tangled in the secret her sister Karen plans to disclose a to their mother Violet. And we know why Barbara cannot let that secret be told.
Barbara’s move is to use the fish lunch and her mother’s failure to eat it as a distracting bludgeon. Watch with discretion. The clip is r rated.
Now, EAT THE FISH, BLEEP! Ours is Cajun Catfish, but this blackened recipe fits the Oklahoma clan, with their darkened house and darkened dreams, just right.
"Catfish fillets are coated with a spicy seasoning mix, and pan-fried outdoors in a hot cast-iron skillet for an authentically Cajun main dish that's done in only a few minutes. Watch out, though, the smoke is intense."
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon onion powder
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon dried parsley
1 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
4 (4 ounce) catfish fillets, skinned
3/4 cup unsalted butter
In a shallow bowl, mix together the black pepper, garlic powder, onion powder, paprika, parsley, cayenne pepper, kosher salt, oregano, and thyme until thoroughly combined. Press the catfish fillets into the spice mixture to thoroughly coat.
Arrange a portable heat source outdoors, such as a butane burner or side burner of a gas grill. Melt butter in a glass or metal bowl. Light the burner, and place a large cast-iron skillet onto the burner over high heat. Pour about 1/4 cup of melted butter into the skillet; set remaining 1/2 cup of butter aside.
When the butter in the skillet is smoking hot, lay the catfish fillets into the skillet. Cook until the spices are burned onto the fillets and the catfish is opaque and flaky inside, about 3 minutes per side. Don't breathe smoke from burning spices. To serve, pour remaining 1/2 cup of butter over the catfish.