August: Osage County review

This adaptation of a Tracy Letts play desperately wants some awards, but if Mark has anything to do with it, it won't get them...

In the age of torrents, the screener discs that are sent out to critics and members of awards voting bodies during Oscar season have a tendency to turn up online. If you ever see a dodgy copy of one of these screeners, you’ll presumably have your viewing experience briefly interrupted, every now and then, by an on-screen graphic with either a copyright notice or a “For Your Consideration” banner.

I saw August: Osage County in the cinema, upon its UK release date this weekend. Cinema releases are free of such digital graphics, but trust me – this is a film that has got “For Your Consideration” written all over it, and in no good way.

Based on a screenplay by Tracy Letts, (from his own Broadway play) this explores the dynamics between the Westons, a family fraught by bitterness and baggage, as they reunite for the funeral of patriarch, Beverley, (Sam Shepard) who has recently died under suspicious circumstances.

His widow, Violet (Meryl Streep), is suffering from mouth cancer, and is popping an inordinate amount of pills for her condition. In a belligerent and candid mood, she kicks off a whole bunch of arguments with her three daughters; Barbara (Julia Roberts), Karen (Juliette Lewis), and Ivy (Juliette Nicholson) – and the pile-up of their extended family in one house only exacerbates the conflict.

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Whatever the quality of Tracy Letts’ script before this ensemble was let loose on it, this feels like quite a tacky, hollow shot at hoovering up Oscar recognition in the acting categories, and it has been rewarded with an obligatory nod for Streep and a supporting nomination for Roberts. The tissue that holds this film together are the scenes in which they histrionically hurl recriminations at one another, so that actually seems to have paid off.

Both women have considerably de-glammed for their parts, and Roberts actually isn’t even close to awful in this, but you haven’t seen Streep overact like this since Mamma Mia!, and I dare say some ABBA might not have gone amiss in the middle of this one. Meryl Streep on her worst day is still better than most actors on their best, but this is arguably her worst day in some time. Unless of course you vote in the Academy Awards.

Not only is her performance overdone, it’s all over the place, which suggests to me that it’s not actually her fault that it came out so muddled. Sometimes it’s right for the scene, as in a particularly good monologue about how her own mother’s cruelty made for an unhappy Christmas one year in her teens, but it’s the inconsistency that sinks it.

One minute, she’s spitting out toxic insults to her loved ones, and the next, she’s hollering with barely-contained anguish. It’s a totally reasonable acting choice to assume that a character as mean and bitter as Violet must be sad inside, but that doesn’t mesh with what the script is saying. As written, Violet doesn’t seem given to self-pity at all.

The lack of a firm directorial hand is clear all the way through. This is one of those un-cinematic play adaptations that unfolds like a stage show, but with location shooting. I had hoped for better from this on account of previous cinematic versions of Letts’ work, Bug and Killer Joe, which were both directed for the screen by William Friedkin. But Wells lacks anything like Friedkin’s directorial panache, and doesn’t seem to have any vision to reconcile with the actors’ own choices, while he sets up camera two-shots to capture the pandemonium.

It’s never more clear than in the 20 minute post-funeral dinner scene that is clearly meant to be the centrepiece of this family’s dramatic turmoil. It’s so unrefined and flatly executed as to actually be boring, even as Streep is yo-yoing between line deliveries and the whole scene escalates towards a cathartic explosion of violence. The script alone is great, but it feels like having a good road map and nobody at the steering wheel.

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In spite of this, there are a couple of solidly good turns here and there. Roberts, Lewis and Nicholson are all strong as sisters who each find their illusions being shattered by being back in close quarters with one another, and with Violet. Elsewhere, the father-son relationship between Violet’s brother-in-law Charlie, (Chris Cooper) and Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch) becomes very touching, thanks to the performances behind them.

Cumberbatch plays against type surprisingly well, as a clumsy, well-meaning buffoon who manages to over-sleep and miss his uncle’s funeral, while Cooper is always kind to him, in the face of everyone else writing him off as an idiot.

In fact, the film’s best scene sees Charlie stand up for his son against the constant emasculation inflicted by the family. Without degenerating into hysterics, Cooper launches an all-encompassing verbal strike against the bitchiness and mean spiritedness we’ve seen so far, right at the point when we’re all getting just about sick of it as well.

Wells comes tantalisingly close to recovering some interest, when Letts’ script expertly rattles a shocking skeleton out of the in-laws’ closet right at the end of the second act, just after that angry monologue from Charlie. But as soon as that’s passed, the film starts haemorrhaging characters left and right, taking the next possible exit to get back to mean, noisy overacting between Streep and Roberts.

August: Osage County is a flat and utterly uninspired adaptation of Letts’ play which relies far too heavily on its A-list of thesps to puff it up into something more cinematic. Their combined effort over-inflates it altogether, and you’re left with the sense that while the writing probably came across brilliantly on stage, the film is swallowed up by the rampant, incoherent ensemble.

It’s not without flashes of brilliance from the cast, but even the end credits of this film got on my wick. Comprised of tableau drawings of the cast, which scream “FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION!” all by themselves, you’d think we had just finished watching The Return Of The King. But with the bad taste it left in the mouth, it feels far closer to the longest, bleakest episode of Mrs. Brown’s Boys ever made.

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2 out of 5