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Julianne Nicholson and Meryl Streep in August: Osage County
Julianne Nicholson and Meryl Streep in August: Osage County

Toronto 2013: August: Osage County, Moebius, Le Week-End

Families bare their fangs in a trio of domestic melodramas.

By Joshua Rothkopf

Edges of seats will require reinforcement, given all the leaning forward in stupefied amazement that August: Osage County inspires. That's not a recommendation, unless uncut hysteria is your bread, butter and plate. While Tracy Letts's revered Oklahoma-set stage drama delivered plenty of live fireworks as the bitter Westons tore into each other scene after scene, no one here (certainly not director John Wells) reminded his A-list cast that they were, in fact, making a movie and thus could tone it down a notch. The result isn't far off from the screeching family dinner of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, with Meryl Streep as Leatherface in a black shock wig, rolling eyes and a declarative, finger-jabbing wag. "Where's the meat?!!" Streep's Violet hollers, guffawing at a misremembered Wendy's commercial (and ignoring her cowed daughter's correction). To be sure, you're simply not a movie fan if juicy melodrama like this—more awaits, like Julia Roberts immortal delivery of "Eat the fish, bitch!"—doesn't make you smile. But a reality check is needed: It's pure lunacy to argue that Letts's three-hour play has retained any of its subtle power, or is a prestige Oscar candidate. Nor is anyone going to convince me that the material been properly adapted to the screen simply by shooting it on farm country. Even if you put your own clan's knockdown brawls in mind, this film doesn't occur anywhere close to reality.

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Paradoxically, I preferred the movie with the mother-on-son castration. Moebius's director, Kim Ki-duk, made a persuasive bid for respectability with 2003's Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring, a serene Buddhist meditation about aging and rebirth. But he's much more comfortable making shocking comedies. His latest, like August: Osage County, has a crazy-haired mom (fierce Lee Eun-woo) first seen writhing on the floor with her unfaithful husband for the tell-tale cell phone. A sullen teenage son watches nervously from the sidelines; he has no idea how he's going to suffer for his father's infidelity, a brutal physical misfortune that his shamed dad will turn on himself, via an understanding surgeon. The rest of Moebius is a sick series of Internet penile-research scenes, weird sexual encounters involving rocks and switchblades, and nightmarish revenge moments. It pains me to reveal, out of necessity, that not a single word is spoken in the film. Such is Kim's plotty momentum that the whole thing feels like an extreme joke made of pained silences, one that strips bare the subtext of overbearing parents. Streep herself couldn't improve on it.

How about a real family? In matters of excruciating intimacy, no entry has yet eclipsed Roger Michell's Le Week-End (coming soon to the New York Film Festival)—on the surface, a breezy tale of an aging English couple's anniversary getaway in Paris. The presence of the always excellent Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan got me in the door, but their recognizable bickering over money matters and thwarted ambitions inked it. Smile as you might through much of the initial portion (including a too-cute dash and dine), this is not a nice story. It constantly reminds you of shifting emotional winds, of a failed-to-launch son desperate to move back home, and lost opportunities. Casually, Broadbent's professor reveals some terrible news: He's facing forced early retirement for an ignominious exchange with a Black student ("She said her hair was her identity, her history and…something else I'm forgetting," he explains between wine sips). Later, the specter of professional jealousy looms in a bumped-into colleague, the mighty rambler Jeff Goldblum, whose obsequious flattery (and swank book party hosted by a pregnant second wife) proves cold comfort. Edward Albee would know these people—and there's not a razor blade or piece of smashed china in sight.

Follow Joshua Rothkopf on Twitter: @joshrothkopf


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