Families react to tragedy in “August: Osage County” and “Nebraska”

What do you do when a parent dies? Make a movie, of course! In Hollywood, you assemble all the family members to inter the dead deceased and exhume all the dirty family secrets you can find. We’ve all seen this a number of times, but possibly not so well done as with the amazing cast of August: Osage County.

I could rave on about the performance of Benedict Cumberbatch. You’ve seen him as the mighty Khan, taking over the Star Trek universe. You’ve seen him as the erudite Sherlock Holmes. You’ve seen him win the hand of the maiden, you’ve seen him knife his friends in the back. But have you seen him as a wimpy looser crybaby? I could rave on about the performance of Cumberbatch, but I won’t because his is the smallest role in August: Osage County. The juiciest roles are the wife and three daughters of the dearly deceased, and they surely make the best of them.

It’s a talky movie and some of the talk is outright racist. It’s meant to be ugly. Meryl Streep can do ugly. By now, we should be convinced that Meryl Streep can do anything, but we’ve never seen her do ugly like this!

Misty Upham, as the Cheyenne woman hired as housemaid to an Oklahoma family, is the only reserved character in the performance. Everyone else swirls about her in a whirlpool of craziness.

When it comes to the failures and nastiness in our genes, we’re all victims, the movie says. But is it possible to overcome our foul family inheritance?

Another fine actors’ movie, Nebraska, asks the same question. In this one, the father isn’t dead. Isn’t exactly dead. Not death but dementia is claiming this father, a little at a time. The great Bruce Dern is the father slipping off the edge of reason. His wife makes it clear early on that she’s had all she can take. His son grudgingly decides to make one more effort, but it’s a whale of an effort. A movielong effort.

Nebraska is also a road trip. Father and son (Bob Odenkirk) travel from Omaha to faraway Nebraska in quest of an unreachable fixation. Along the way, they encounter the father’s youthful friends and family. Most of them are pretty sorry, so the son’s burden, it seems, will increase with every painful black and white frame of the movie.

We get really involved, though we don’t know when to laugh and when to cry. There are titters from time to time in the audience, but there’s no general agreement on responses.

No matter what the audience may bring to the situation, and no matter how they would like the story to proceed, it’s all up to the beleaguered son. The father doesn’t seem to care, and neither do the rest of the characters. Only the son. And us.

Nebraska is an uplifting movie, and some would say that August: Osage County is, too. Believe it or not, both are comedies, but not the easy funny kind. I don’t think anybody could get through either film without asking hard questions about our own families and ourselves.

They both have union logos at the end.

“August: Osage County”

Directed by John Wells

130 mins.

Starring Julia Roberts, Meryl Streep, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ewan McGregor


Directed by Alexander Payne

110 mins.

Starring Bruce Dern, Bob Odenkirk, Will Forte, Stacy Keach, Devin Ratray

Photo: “August: Osage County.” Internet Movie Database.