The Oklahoma of Tracy Lett’s August; Osage County is a total freakin’ wasteland. I’m not talking about the fertile, rolling farmlands stretching off across the plains in glorious golden technicolor summer sunshine. But instead, inside the chintzy over-stuffed patriarchal home of the Weston family, whose Dad has just killed himself. This singular event provides the framework to a whole panoply of familiar dysfunction – drug addictions to prescription meds, flirtations with marijuana, alcoholism, divorce, a creepy interest in the teenage daughter that’s verging on pedophiliac, there’s incest, betrayal, casual racism and even a couple of cancers. And there’s stand-up, knock-down, intolerable cruelty. Just your average family living the American dream, then.
August Osage County is a tale that started life on the stage before moving to the big screen; sometimes it gives itself away as just that. The cast is utterly stupendous – Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Abigail Breslin, Juliette Lewis, Benedict Cumberbatch, Julianne Nicholson (my best) and Dermot Mulroney – and they all give cracking, simply first rate performances. But they sometimes do feel like performances, on a stage, given stagily – rather than an intimate glimpse into one destroyed family effortlessly ripping each others’ hearts out. Fun though.
I can’t tell you how much this film irritated me. A glitzy Hollywood retelling of the simple Jack in the Beanstalk fairytale, it’s like they wheeled out the old props and sets from Princess Diaries and added as much busy CGI as they could to show how clever they were. Initially I’d been excited because some of the scenes filmed in Norwich Cathedral in Norfolk (ancestral home!) but I should never have underestimated the eagerness of Hollywood to replace ACTUAL history and culture with gaudy, glitzy bad-taste. Honestly, completely rubbish. Poor Ewan McGregor. Really, don’t bother, not even to entertain the kids.
I think whoever was in charge of marketing Beginners was a bit of a genius. As far as I can tell, the film is being punted that it’s the bitter-sweet story of Hal, a widowed 75 year old Museum Director, who comes bursting out of the closet after the death of his wife. It is that: this part is the tale of the writer-director Mike Mill’s own father. Yet really, Beginners is all about Hal’s son Oliver – winningly played by Ewan McGregor – and his French actress girlfriend (Melanie Laurent) who try to find each other through the damage wrought on them by their emotionally problematic, if not quite abusive, parents. I’m not complaining. I wouldn’t have rushed, probably, to see Ewan McGregor in a romantic drama. But the gay theme provides an interesting kick and a backdrop, and all in all, perhaps because it’s so personal, it’s a thoroughly engaging, moving, marvellous piece of entertainment.
Locations-wise, it’s all LA, all the time. The Biltmore – where I suffered through jetlag on my very first trip to LA way back when – is where the actress is staying when she first meets Oliver, but the most striking location is the Richard Neutra Lovell Health House, which stars, literally, as Hal’s designer home. LA Times (of course) has a really great story about how this unique space was made film-ready.