Violet Weston (Meryl Streep) has an unusually loving moment in August: Osage County (The Weinstein Co.)
Relationships can be tough. I think we’d all accept that as a given, whether we’re talking about the family kind of relationship or the lovey-dovey kind. In two movies opening in Columbus this weekend, people face various kinds of relationship problems. In the better of the two, a lonely man actually tries to make a computer program his “significant other.” But before we visit that late-arriving piece of 2014 Oscar bait, let’s look at a far more traditional entry.

Things aren’t OK in Oklahoma

August: Osage County, directed by John Wells and adapted by Tracy Letts from his Pulitzer Prize-winning play, delves into the lives of the dysfunctional Weston family. When the alcoholic father (Sam Shepard) suddenly disappears, its far-flung members are forced to return to their Oklahoma homestead. There they try to comfort each other in a time of crisis, but they’re too consumed by their own problems and neuroses to be successful. Did I call the Westons dysfunctional? Actually, that doesn’t begin to describe them. Before their tale is over, we’ve witnessed drug abuse, infidelity, incest and even attempted statutory rape. Perhaps worst of all, we’ve witnessed rampant mental cruelty, most of it dished out by the missing man’s pill-addicted and cancer-stricken wife, Violet (a devilish Meryl Streep). When I saw August: Osage County onstage at Otterbein a couple of years ago, I thought it was sometimes funny, sometimes pretentious and ultimately unsatisfying. Compared to the stage version, the movie adaptation is less pretentious, but it’s also less funny and even less satisfying. Some have blamed the film’s problems on its two stars—Streep and Julia Roberts, who plays her oldest daughter, Barbara—saying they gnawed away at the scenery in an attempt to land their latest Oscar nominations. I’m not so quick to blame them, as Streep’s performance seems no more exaggerated than her dialogue, and Roberts’s portrayal is mainly defined by her omnipresent glare. (No “Julia Roberts smile” in this flick!) If the film is wanting, it’s largely because it tries to stuff too much shock and angst into its two hours. Since that running time is a good hour shorter than the stage version, the packed plot leaves little time for character development. Some actors do come out well, including Margo Martindale and Chris Cooper as Violet’s equally mean sister and quietly decent brother-in-law. But the flick as a whole will leave many viewers wishing they’d turned back at the county line. Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

It’s definitely better than Windows 8

In the not-so-distant future, people’s primary relationships will be with their electronic gadgets rather than human beings. I know, this sounds more like current events than science fiction, but that’s the point of Her, the ingenious new flick from writer/director Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich). Jonze’s version of Los Angeles, in which people are oblivious to their surroundings because they’re listening to their own music or engaging in conversations with someone who’s not there, seems like a slightly exaggerated take on the present. The tale focuses on Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), a professional letter writer. Theodore helps other people connect with their loved ones by putting down in words the sentiments they’ve forgotten how to express. Yet he seems just as incapable of finding love in his own life: He’s separated from his wife (Rooney Mara), and his attempts at dating go disastrously—and sometimes hilariously—wrong. Then Theodore learns about a new computer operating system that is said to achieve almost human-like intelligence and intuition. He signs on and meets “Samantha” (Scarlett Johansson), a virtual being who’s so warm and engaging that she immediately becomes his best friend. And soon, even though she’s nothing but an electronic voice, she becomes his lover. This may sound like a male fantasy—the robotic female who’s programmed to kowtow to her master’s every desire—but it’s not. Samantha has emotions and needs of her own, and she and Theodore eventually run into the kind of snags that seem all too human. Moreover, women also have computerized friends in Her’s world. Theodore’s neighbor, Amy (Amy Adams), develops her own virtual relationship after breaking up with her insensitive boyfriend (Matt Letscher). The futuristic tale ultimately takes a turn that will seem familiar to sci-fi fans, but for the most part it’s marked by developments that are both witty and surprising. When Theodore and Samantha double-date with a conventional couple, for example, the others treat the situation as perfectly normal. Complementing Jonze’s script are Hoyte Van Hoytema’s expressive cinematography and Owen Pallett’s lushly romantic score. Mostly, though, the film is buoyed by Phoenix and Johansson’s charming performances. It’s hard to say which is more impressive: Phoenix, who plays most of his scenes to a disembodied voice, or Johansson, who radiates humanity despite playing that disembodied voice. No matter. We’re all the winners, having been treated to a view of a future that is at once troubling and perversely inviting. Rating: 4½ stars (out of 5)
Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) spends time on the beach with his favorite operating system in Her (Warner Bros. Pictures)

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