Julia Roberts is one of the biggest female movie stars of all time. With a career box office north of $2 billion she, and her megawatt smile, were the stuff of blockbusters throughout the 90s and early 2000s. She was everywhere, and then, somewhere around the time Jennifer Lawrence was celebrating her thirteenth birthday Roberts stepped away. Not completely, but she jumped off the Hollywood treadmill, doing what movie stars who have nothing left to prove do.
That is, whatever she wanted. She stayed out of view, voicing a couple of animated movies and popping up in the occasional film, some high profile—like the ensemble of Ocean’s Twelve—some not—like Fireflies in the Garden—but the days of solo Pretty Woman-esque success were, by her own choosing, behind her. By and large her choices became a bit more eclectic as she relied less on the famous smile and more on flexing her acting muscles. Since 2004’s Closer her filmography has been splintered between crowd pleasers like Eat Pray Love, dramas like August: Osage County and misfires like Secret in Their Eyes.
This weekend she’s back working with the director who helped make her famous starring in Mother’s Day, her fourth collaboration with filmmaker Garry Marshall. The pair make a movie roughly every ten years, from 1990’s Pretty Woman to Runaway Bride in 1999 to 2010’s Valentine’s Day to this year’s entry, and their combo usually delivers big box office.
In between her the commercial films she makes with Marshall, Roberts makes a movie a year and while they haven’t always connected with audiences many are worth a look.
Duplicity is a romantic comedy about espionage. Imagine if Rock Hudson and Doris Day starred in Mission Impossible. Instead you have Roberts as an experienced CIA officer looking for a change and Clive Owen as a charming MI6 agent. Both left the world of international intrigue for the infinitely more profitable task of corporate security. Together they launch an elaborate plan of corporate dirty tricks to steal a top-secret formula that will revolutionize the cosmetics industry. Roberts and Owen are witty and charming and Duplicity, with its entertaining performances and stylish look, is a bit of fun despite its convoluted story.
August: Osage County, an all-star remounting of Tracey Letts’s hit Broadway play, gives Roberts her juiciest role in years. As Barbara she’s a bit of an enigma. She’s a jumble of mixed, complicated emotions, capable of both great kindness and compassion but able only to express herself through tough love. When she explodes she lets loose a lifetime of rage stemming from her mother’s (played by Meryl Streep) mistreatment. When they go head-to-head it is the clash of the titans and an unforgettable scene.
Finally, there’s Larry Crowne, a boomer comedy aimed at audiences with memories long enough to remember when gas only cost 54 cents a litre, none of your neighbours had foreclosure signs on their front lawns and Tom Hanks and Roberts ruled the box office. It’s an uplifting comedy about middle age, brave enough to tackle modern problems like downsizing and foreclosure, but non-challenging enough to weave all the bad stuff into a pseudo romantic comedy. Hanks and Roberts cut through the material like hot knives through butter and Julia treats audiences to one of her trademarked laughing scenes.
And you thought your family get-togethers were weird.
Take the worst family dinner party ever, times it by infinity and you can begin to imagine the discomfort and distress at the Weston clan table. “August: Osage County,” the all star remounting of Tracey Letts’s hit Broadway play never met a disparaging remark it couldn’t place in the mouth of one of its mean-spirited diners.
The film reunites the Weston sisters, Barbara (Julia Roberts), Karen (Juliette Lewis) and Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) along with soon-to-be ex-husbands, grumpy granddaughters and secret lovers, with their pill-popping mommy dearest Violet (Meryl Streep). They come together when Dad (Sam Shepard) goes missing, but his disappearance is simply a backdrop to bring this desperate group of people together and allow them to wallow in their dysfunction.
“August: Osage County” is ram-packed with unlikeable characters played by likeable actors. There’s more baggage on display here than at any airport carousel and while it is occasionally difficult to buy in to the level of petty behavior displayed by Violet and her prey, the vindictive dialogue often does sound delicious rolling off the tongues of these actors.
A case in point is the dinner scene. It features the best example of ensemble acting on screen this year, giving everyone around the crowded table a chance to show what they can do. Chris Cooper’s rambling, extended saying-of-grace is worth the price of admission, but the powerhouse back-and-forth between Streep and Roberts is the main attraction.
Roberts hasn’t had a juicy role like this in years. Her Barbara is a bit of an enigma. She’s a jumble of mixed, complicated emotions, capable of both great kindness and compassion but seems only to express herself through tough love. When she explodes she’s letting loose a lifetime of rage stemming from her mother’s mistreatment.
When they go head-to-head it is the clash of the titans and an unforgettable scene.
Streep is shrill, and purposefully so, but it is far from a one note performances. For instance a porch swing monologue shows her mastery of the form. What could have been an interminable acting class monologue is transformed into an epic bit of storytelling with more range and character development in the five minutes it takes to play out than most movies contain in their entire running time.
“August: Osage County” sometimes feels like you’re watching “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” with all the tender parts removed. Unhappy people abound and so do inappropriate situations to the point where it becomes hard to imagine that this much dysfunction could be squeezed into one story, but director John Wells holds steady, creating a setting where this kind of behavior can thrive.
Only a misplaced smile in the film’s closing minute feels out of place. It’s an attempt at a Tinsel Town feel good moment in a film that has been uncompromising it its world view up until a final, unnecessary Hollywood touch.
Hollywood is full of hyphenates, the kind of people who introduce themselves as a model-actor-writer-waiter-personal-trainer-dog-walker.
Lately there is one Tinsel Town citizen, however, who has actually earned every word in his hyphenated title.
Tracy Letts is an actor-writer-producer-Pulitzer-Prize-winner who is going to have to get longer business cards if he gets any more successful. You may not recognize the name unless you pay attention to the end credits of Homeland (he plays Senator Andrew Lockhart on the popular show) or if you know who won the 2013 Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.
He’s a multi-talent with a shelf of awards, some heavyweight acting credits and a new movie screenplay on his resume.
His latest project, the script for August: Osage County, puts words into the mouths of some of the biggest stars in Hollywood. The film brings together the Weston sisters, Barbara (Julia Roberts), Karen (Juliette Lewis) and Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) with their pill-popping mommy-dearest Violet (Meryl Streep).
As a writer Letts says inspiration came from Tennessee Williams, William Faulkner and Jim Thompson, which might explain the dark vein that runs through his work.
How twisted are his plays? “Everybody in Tracy’s stories gets naked or dead,” says his mom, author Billie Letts.
Tracy jokingly says that his mother is “a liar” for saying that, pointing out that “not all of the people in my plays wind up naked or dead.”
Still there is no denying that his screenplay for Killer Joe, the 2011 Matthew McConaughey thriller, is written with what Roger Ebert called, “merciless black humor.” The story of a corrupt cop and a bad insurance claim earned critical praise even if the Women Film Critics Circle cited the film for its presentation of what they called “the worst female and male images” of the year.
According to Entertainment Weekly his script for Bug, starring Ashley Judd and Michael Shannon as a lonely woman and unhinged war veteran trapped in a bug infested Oklahoma motel room, contains an “enjoyably icky heart.”
Tracy Letts seems willing to take on any challenge to add to his hyphenate status. There’s just one thing you can’t ask him to do. “I don’t act in the stuff that I write,” he says. “I have no interest in doing that.”