Sunday, February 9, 2014

August: Osage County is More Shakespearean than "Ha Ha" Funny

The trailer for Tracy Letts' August: Osage County had been reflecting images of my own family back to me for a month before I ventured to the movie theater, with my aunt and grandmother in tow. Like a breath of fresh air - which I am led to believe is plentiful in Oklahoma, even if not in the Weston home - the film is a genius hybrid of indie and mainstream, abandoning blockbuster glamour for raw characters with raw emotions, celebrating grey hairs, wrinkles, and sweatpants. And dysfunction. More than once my aunt and I shared a knowing glance before looking slyly over at my grandmother, who quietly munched away at her popcorn, watching the film in open earnestness and seeming oblivion, as though Meryl Streep was anything less than a vision of herself in years to come.  

Letts’ ability to portray the harsh, yet often humorously dramatic realities of family life is presumably the driving force behind the film’s success, and though I left the theater feeling slightly jilted that the broken family had not been repaired, I reveled in its disturbing accuracy. Families laugh, cry, and leave, all without fixing things. That’s real life, and so, jilted I went.

Days later I sat halfheartedly watching television when I experienced my first post-theater-viewing of the August: Osage County trailer. I nearly ignored it altogether, having checked that cinematic box, that is, until I heard one claim I had not previously noticed: “In the year’s most outrageous comedy...”. And just as I now feel compelled to advocate for my grandmother as more than an oblivious lover of popcorn, I immediately jumped to the defense of this film. 

Comedy? Sure, theatergoers had all laughed when Julia Roberts riotously threw her plate of fish to its ceramic demise, but I hardly remembered leaving the theater feeling jovial about what I had seen. Quite the opposite, actually. I had since been haunted by the last shot of the film in which Roberts smirks like she is in on a private joke from behind the wheel of her pickup, having just discovered disturbing information regarding her family, the kind that weighs heavily on the heart and change one’s perception of memories, relationships, everything. Nothing about that was very comical to me.

August: Osage County undoubtedly distinguishes itself from Hollywood’s popularized and often empty definition of comedy as a film with depth and artistry enough to secure esteemed Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations. Still, the Golden Globe for “Best Motion Picture - Musical Theater or Comedy” has been bestowed upon films that more closely align with Hollywood’s illustration, including The Hangover and Mrs. Doubtfire, films that share neither the style of humor nor the serious subject matter of August: Osage County, thus rendering its placement in the category all the more awkward. Not to mention that any comparison between The Hangover and August: Osage County is just bizarre. 

There certainly exist other trailers that do not explicitly market the film as a comedy, almost in testament to the scope of its content, but one should wonder why even one trailer promulgates the film by this simple a label. That the complexities so accurately cast back those of our own lives further attests to this misnomer, as the single term ‘comedy’ does little justice in capturing the convolution of emotions that embody a lifetime.  

The film conveys infinitely more than a few laughs around the dinner table: death, internal and external conflicts, lovers deceived, endless disputes, and a clever housekeeper. Aside from having nearly the antithesis of a happy ending, the film almost exactly meets the qualifications of a Shakespearean comedy, or better still, one of his “problem plays.”

Characterized by genre ambiguity, Shakespeare’s problem plays, including All’s Well that Ends Well and Troilus and Cressida, remain notoriously difficult to categorize, as does August: Osage County. The film opens with the death of the seemingly both mentally stable, yet also somewhat alcoholic patriarch of the family, amidst the hiring of a woman to care for Violet (Meryl Streep), an uncharacteristically gentle name for the fierce matriarch whose age and illness have killed any methods of self-censorship. And hence: the requisite return of family members, bringing about the humorous moments publicized by trailers. But, like in Shakespeare’s problem plays, tragedy and heartbreak lie woven between the threads of humor, casting a dark shadow over the family, giving the film a heavy note of solemnity, and thus confusing the process of categorization.  

The decision to market August: Osage County as a comedy perhaps demonstrates something about a societal need to categorize, and possibly an understanding by marketing that a comedy about the endearing toils of family, released near the holidays, sounds more appealing than a drama with a side of humor. And, although all works of Shakespeare prove worthy of note, his ‘problem plays’ have conspicuously gained far less fame than the neatly filed favorites; one may subsequently observe that in both the psychological and financial realms, neatly categorizing the uncategorizable is desired. Regardless of formal categorization, though, both the problem plays and August: Osage County present problems, unexpected twists, and challenges that undermine or conflict with their humor and thus leave them in a label-less chasm, in the company of life itself.  

My problem with the categorization of August: Osage County as a comedy lies not in a miscalculation of the ratio of humor to tragedy, but rather in its misrepresentation of the film’s powerful story and tone. Comedy, pure comedy, is not inherently mutually exclusive with complexity, profundity, or even solemnity, but according to Hollywood standards, “comedies” are all too often trivial and the people, ideas, and emotions they depict are, at best, mere gestures toward what we know to be true, and at worst, unrecognizable. The trailers for August: Osage County serve to show viewers an amplified reflection of their own families, but those which wholly leave out the solemnity that comes with complexity do injustice to the film and viewers alike. There are many movies that are as funny as they are sad, that provoke as much laughter as tears, which is why labeling August: Osage County as merely a comedy detracts from what it really does: confront us who we truly are.

Those who seek to find humor but no pathos in its two hours will discover something far more profound: an honest and culturally significant depiction of the 21st Century American family. No longer featuring garters, suspenders, pin curls, or well-mannered children, cinematic markers that classify on-screen families as purely fictitious, the family makes up in endearment what it lacks in fabrication. As though in an important message about the existence, even the necessity, of cutting honesty within familial relations, it tells viewers that it’s alright to acknowledge the passing of time, and what we lose, and gain, as time goes by. The presence of comedy in the film aids in the comforting of viewers and only adds value to excellent performances by a star-studded cast, but the limitations of comedy as a Hollywood genre diminishes the value of the film’s largest and most underlying point: that life defies simple categorization, that it is inescapably complex.

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