The tagline for August: Osage County, John Wells’ film adaptation of Tracy Letts’ 2008 Pulitzer Prize winning play, reads, “Misery loves family.” It’s a deliciously sinister statement, one that represents the core of what makes the story work, for just as misery loves family, we – the audience and viewer – love watching misery love family. There’s just something addictively chilling about seeing families turn on each other, seeing loved ones sink their teeth into one another with digs and jabs that cut through the heart like a newly sharpened blade. It’s for this very reason the great Edward Albee and Tennessee Williams were such painfully pleasing writers. What’s more cruelly satisfying than watching Martha and George tear each other to shreds in Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? Or seeing Blanche DuBois emotionally poison the Kowalski’s in A Streetcar Named Desire? Like these playwrights, Letts exposes the festering wounds families love to cut open in August: Osage County, and while the film looses a lot of what makes the play one of contemporary theater’s most masterful dark comedies, it still is home to a fierce ensemble spouting verbal fireworks, and that alone makes a twisted recipe for entertainment.
Adapted by Letts himself, the film focuses on the Weston clan, a family of disconnected daughters, uncles, aunts, and cousins who find themselves under the same roof after the disappearance of the family patriarch, Beverly (an infectiously humble Sam Shepard in just one scene). His wife is the blistering Violet (Meryl Streep), a pill-popping monster with throat cancer who rattles of truthful opinions like shotgun bullets that implode on impact. Violet’s tough love has clearly rattled the lives of her three daughters and their ability to have relationships. Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) is stuck home attending to her mother and seemingly can’t find a man. Karen (Juliette Nicholson) has been married and divorced more times than she can remember and her latest catch (Dermot Mulroney) is no keeper. And Barbara, as the trailer already spoils, is divorcing her cheating husband (Ewan McGregor), much to the trouble of their spunky daughter (Abigail Breslin). Even Violet’s sister, Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale), is showing strains in her marriage to Charles (Chris Cooper) and in her relationship with her son, Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch). Worst of all, Barbara’s divorce is the least of the family’s shocking secrets, and as one atom bomb drops after the next, the family caves in on itself in a pool of pain and despair. Clearly, we’re far, far away from happy go-lucky family film territory.
The big problem with August: Osage County is that it’s a two-hour film cut down from a nearly four-hour play, and not even the work’s creator, Letts, can take out so much material and still preserve all of the play’s wickedness and humor. What you end up having is a SparkNotes version of the lengthy play, a movie that keeps all of the original work’s big moments and revelations (including the infamous dinner table sequence) but excludes those tiny, quiet moments of nuance and character building. Gone are the light moments of humor that give the story room to breathe before it explodes into the big moments. Gone are the functioning character-stereotypes that evolve into complex, relatable family members over the play’s four hours. Letts does his best with his own material, but by dramatically cutting down the runtime he forces the story to be nothing more than concise moments of forced melodrama. By the end, so many secrets are pouring out one after the other that you almost feel strangled by the soap opera-ness of it all. It doesn’t help that Wells, the television producer of hits ER and The West Wing, brings almost nothing to the proceedings, directing the film without any life or pulse. He shoots each scene at its most standard and solely relies on his actors to bring the material to elevated life.
Luckily, these actors are extremely talented and this is an ensemble of dynamite proportions. With the screenplay giving each cast member a moment to shine, not one performance ever misses a beat – Breslin is perfectly bratty, Nicholson and Cumberbatch radiate kindness in every quiet smile, Lewis adds surprising regret to her typical sleaze ball performance, Mulroney is messily out of place but so to is his character, and Chris Cooper and Margo Martindale add real emotional impact to a marriage crumbling under the weight of hushed oppression. Cooper, especially, is effectively and subtly withered as the long-suffering Charles. The long dinner table scene, the film’s centerpiece, is a rendezvous of sizzling, head-butting talent that leaves you gutted. Everyone brings their A-game, no matter the importance of the character to the story.
But, in truth, it’s hard for any of these actors to make much of a lasting impression when Meryl Streep, as always, is chewing every scene whole, savoring its rotten core for minutes on end, and spitting it back up like a bullet of ferocious intensity. Streep digs into Letts’ best lines and turns them into grenades of screen cutting honesty. Mixing the dazed delusions of Blanche DuBois and the crazed, gut-ripping truths of Mabel in John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under The Influence, Streep turns her monster mother into an unrelenting beast of raging matriarchy. It’s yet another powerful performance from one of the best actresses of all time and one that will surely earn her another Best Actress Oscar nomination next week. The biggest surprise, however, is Roberts; as the shrill Barbara, Roberts gives perhaps the best performance of her career, reveling in Barbara’s quiet torment. It’s shocking to see America’s Sweetheart curse and break fine China, and Roberts takes this inherent surprise and uses it to fuel Barbara’s misery. It’s a great example of an actress turning our perceptions of her on their head and filling them with dark, painful sides we’ve never seen. Roberts is a more than capable David to Streep’s Goliath, especially during the dinner scene.
Ultimately, August: Osage County is one hell of an actor’s showcase, and the cast is deservedly nominated for the SAG Award for Best Ensemble. Watching these fine talents argue, rip into each other, and tear one another to verbal shreds is sourly entertaining and again proves why watching misery love family is as fun as it is wicked. And yet you can’t help but wonder what Elia Kazan or Cassavetes would have done with this material, or even, more contemporarily, James Pondsoldt, Richard Linklater, or Woody Allen. A director that could make this screenwriting pop would have turned August: Osage County into the tour-de-force it’s desperately trying to be. But even so, this superb ensemble is worth a recommendation.
Review by Zack Sharf