Here's the thing about when you go see a "Meryl Streep movie" or a "Julia Roberts movie." With Streep, you always expect her to be all Meryl Streep-y. That's to say you know she'll be sensational, and yet somehow you're still astonished when she surpasses those expectations. With Roberts, it's a little different. You don’t expect her to be great, per se, but really, really hope she will be. And sometimes, she is.
August: Osage County is the first of its kind: a "Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts movie." On a pretty frequent basis, Hollywood pairs two of its Acting Greats for a spectacle of performance, setting the actors free for some Grade A scenery chewing. Also frequently, Hollywood pairs two Movie Stars for a spectacle of a different kind: simply seeing two really famous, really pretty people sharing a screen. What makes August: Osage County unusual is its risky mash up of both: the Acting Great teaming up with the Movie Star.
It's not perfect, but it's a clever formula that mostly works.
It's always a gamble when two major celebrities co-headline a film. Hollywood legend reads more like a horror story with examples of such movies going horribly, terribly bad. Remember the fiasco of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in Cleopatra? Robert Redford and Mia Farrow in The Great Gatsby? Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts in The Mexican? Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez in Gigli? Or how about more recently, Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie in The Tourist?
There seems to be this idea that gossip-rag fame translates to box-office dollars, or that multiplying one headlining A-lister's star power by two doubles the odds of audiences enjoying a movie. But so often that's not the case. That's not to say that turning Hollywood's most in-demand leading players into co-stars is always a bad idea: Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn proved that with The African Queen, and Taylor and Burton made up for their Cleopatra fiasco with Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? But it remains a high-risk venture that only rarely yields high reward.
In August: Osage County, Streep and Roberts play mother and daughter in a deranged and vitriolic Oklahoman family. Both actresses have been ruling Hollywood for so long that it's almost unfathomable that they've never starred opposite each other in a movie before, whether it was one of Streep's tear-jerking dramas or Roberts's expertly done romantic comedies in the '90s and early '00s. Waiting so long to cast them in the same movie, though, has proven to be a shrewd move.
Streep, so long working as one of the industry's most respected actors, has only recently been vaulted—thanks to the box-office success of The Devil Wears Prada, Mamma Mia!, Julie and Julia, and It's Complicated—to the status of Movie Star, in the way that it's not only a given that she'll be impressive in a film but she can also be counted on to make it commercially successful, too.
Roberts is also in an interesting phase of her career. She's always been a good actress, occasionally even a great one. The difference between the Julia Roberts now and the Julia Roberts of 10, maybe even 15 years ago, is that a decade ago she churned out so many films with such speed that they became innocuous and uninteresting—in many instances, even, unmemorable. Now, however, she's still a Movie Star on the same level as she was back then, but she's so judicious about what roles she takes on and what movies she makes that there's a piqued curiosity, an interesting-ness, about the projects she chooses.
So seeing Streep and Roberts, at this part of their careers, specifically, play these roles in this film is a treat.
Streep plays Violet Weston, a woman unraveled after her husband's suicide. She has mouth cancer, an ailment one might consider karmic after hearing two minutes of her rapacious insults and cruelty only barely masked in love. It's a very Meryl Streep performance, one that finds her using a thick accent that's maybe just a little too thick but it's Meryl Streep so you trust its authenticity and a physical tick that's maybe just a little too distracting but it's Meryl Streep so you bow down to the commitment to strong acting choices. Roberts plays Violet's daughter, Barb, whose sympathy for Violet's troubles run out the second she discovers her mother’s back on prescription pills. She's a ticking time bomb of exasperation who explodes twice in two key scenes, one of which gifts us all with a catch phrase that will resurface every time we have fish for dinner.
All of August: Osage County, with Juliette Lewis and Julianne Nicholson playing Roberts's sisters, Margo Martindale and Chris Cooper as two more members of the elder Weston generation, and Benedict Cumberbatch as a cousin with mild Autism is showcase for Acting—capital A, italicized, in bold, and underlined. The movie itself—from the plot to the direction—is almost inconsequential. You're not there to see a movie, and the actors aren't there to give you one. You are there to see Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts and the rest of the ensemble compete in the acting Olympics, and for the love of Oscar do they all give medal-worthy performances. August: Osage County is actually a bit of a silly name for a movie that could be called Acting: The Movie.
But it's that almost indulgent, very nearly masturbatory way that August: Osage County is a vehicle for star performances that make it such a smart movie for the two actresses. So often Movie Star movies funnel egregious amounts of money into unnecessary production budgets that don't pay off (remember, again, the unfathomable cost of Cleopatra's flop), but August: Osage County finds its blockbuster pyrotechnics in the performances. It's something that, it turns out, is way more fun to watch.