August: Osage County is a hoot and a holler, says PEOPLE's film critic, but a serious family drama it ain't

By Alynda Wheat and PEOPLE Movie Critic
Updated January 10, 2014 02:50 PM
Credit: The Weinstein Company

Sure, August: Osage County has an A-list cast. But is the film itself as Oscar-worthy as its bevy of stars? Or a camp classic-to-be filled with quotable insults and dinner-table tirades?

Plus: PEOPLE’s film critic gives you the rundown on The Invisible Woman and Jessica Biel‘s latest attempt at a stirring drama.

Here’s what to see and what to skip at the movies:

See This:

August: Osage County
Take a breath, folks, because this is it: The last of the prestige pictures. Now, do yourself a favor and forget what I just called it. Because the way to enjoy August: Osage County, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning Tracy Letts play, is to ignore its esteemed pedigree and soak it up as a camp classic in the making.

Meryl Streep stars as Violet Weston, stricken with mouth cancer and lashing out at everyone around her as though she could cure herself by blistering them with insults. Julia Roberts plays her eldest daughter, Barbara, who joins her sisters Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) and Karen (Juliette Lewis) at the family’s Oklahoma homestead when their father, Beverly (Sam Shepard), goes missing. Barbara has troubles of her own, with her marriage to Bill (Ewan McGregor) falling apart and her daughter, Jean (Abigail Breslin), quickly growing to resent her. Like mother, like daughter.

There are secrets and plots all around, but the epic battles are reserved for Violet and Barbara, with Streep summoning a deep-throated performance steeped in bile and bitterness. Roberts is at her best as the resentful Barbara, though few can match Streep at her most operatic. Really, the whole cast is top-notch – from Benedict Cumberbatch as a nebbish cousin so downtrodden he’s still referred to as “Little Charles” to Chris Cooper as his decent and kind father, Charlie, and the incredible Margo Martindale as his mom, Mattie Fae, who holds a whopper of a family scandal close to the vest.

The problem is that August loses cohesion somewhere in the translation from four-hour play into two-hour film. The tone swings up and down and the direction seems uncertain, leaving us with little to grasp besides those big, grandiose performances. So I say grab ’em. Hold onto Meryl and Julia barking at each other like starved Rottweilers at the dinner table. Glory in the insults whispered under the breath and pitched at the top of the lungs. Grin like a fool as they make asses of themselves over and over – mainly for our amusement, since the movie doesn’t quite succeed at eliciting our sympathy. Take it as a Mommie Dearest for our times, a treasure trove of withering insults we’ll be quoting for years to come. And for the rest of the Oscar bait, let them worry about being respectable.

And This, Too:

The Invisible Woman
Between writing a sizable chunk of the English literary canon, performing plays and readings of his work, fundraising tirelessly for charity and fathering 10 children, you’d think Charles Dickens (Ralph Fiennes) wouldn’t have had time to be a salacious cad. You’d be wrong there. The esteemed novelist set Victorian tongues wagging when – at 45 – he took up with 18-year-old actress Ellen “Nelly” Ternan (Felicity Jones).

Director and star Fiennes plays the great man as oh-so-complicated, at once mesmerizing and charismatic, while also disturbingly predatory in his pursuit of Nelly, the daughter of an old friend (Kristin Scott Thomas). Jones, who deserves more recognition for a budding career of strong work in films from Like Crazy to Hysteria, is deeply affecting as a girl overwhelmed by Dickens’s affections (and to some degree, his money). Whether she truly loves him is debatable, but it’s clear from the older Nelly’s flashbacks that she cannot shake his claim on her.

What sets The Invisible Woman apart is that it doesn’t let the lovers off the hook. By far the most sympathetic character is Catherine (Joanna Scanlan), Dickens’s wife and his children’s mother. The poor lady can’t match her husband’s intellect or Nelly’s beauty, but the quiet dignity with which she bears his ever more cruel desertion is wrenching. This is a literary scandal that dares to remind us of the very real pain it caused.

But Skip This:

The Truth About Emanuel
The French would call The Truth About Emanuel a folies à deux between motherless teen Emanuel (Kaya Scodelario) and young mother Linda (Jessica Biel), each trying to fill their bottomless need with the other. I’m here to tell you the movie is just cray-cray but doesn’t have the boldness of spirit to run with it.

Emanuel opens the film by telling us she killed her mother. The truth is, her mom died in childbirth and Emanuel is a drama queen. The high-school senior is also well versed in snark and melancholy, dragging her sweet dad (Alfred Molina) and practically perfect stepmom (Frances O’Connor) down with every bitter comment. But when Linda moves in next door with her baby, Chloe, Emanuel perks up, frequently visiting the single mom, babysitting and helping around the house.

Then the crazy starts. I won’t spoil it by telling you what the twisted deal is between Linda and Emanuel, but it’s worthy of a spit-take. Scoledario is quite believable in the midst of the madness, jealously guarding her secret with Linda. Biel is nearly as strong, playing up Linda’s psychosis until the dramatic finale. Everyone, in fact, takes themselves awfully seriously, and that’s the problem. Like August: Osage County, Emanuel needs to embrace its campiness and be the nutty psychological horror film it truly is, instead of settling for a wan, forgettable drama with a freaky twist.