August: Osage County Review

Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play comes to the screen as little more than a semi-campy showcase for some serious scenery chewing.

August: Osage County practically screams “prestige picture” (and that’s just the beginning of the screaming, trust me). Based on a Tony-and-Pulitzer-winning play by the red-hot Tracy Letts (who also authored the plays on which Killer Joe andBug were based), it stars Julia Roberts, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper, Sam Shepard, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ewan McGregor, Juliette Lewis and more in a story that seems on the surface at least to be almost straight out of Tennessee Williams. But as directed by John Wells (The Company Men) from Letts’ own screenplay, it ends up being Williams by way of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. When a sudden tragedy reunites the three Weston sisters at their Oklahoma family home, the women find themselves confronting their own pasts – and possibly their futures – in the form of their monstrous, drug-addled mother Violet (Streep).  Barbara (Roberts) and Karen (Lewis) have both moved away; Barbara is married, but separated from college professor Bill (McGregor) with whom she has a 14-year-old daughter named Jean (Abigail Breslin). Karen is the youngest of the sisters and the wild child, having gone through a succession of men only to land with sleazy Steve Heidebrecht (Dermot Mulroney). And middle sister Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) has stayed in Osage County to care for Violet and their father, Beverly (Shepard), whose disappearance triggers the unexpected family reunion. Also present are Violet’s sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale), her kindly husband Charles (Cooper) and their clumsy, weak-willed son “Little” Charles (Cumberbatch), there to provide support and comfort to Violet as Beverly’s fate becomes clear. But Violet is long past mourning for her alcoholic husband. Suffering herself from mouth cancer, she is pumped full of all kinds of painkillers and narcotics yet still possessed of a wicked tongue and – in her more lucid moments – a shrewd knowledge of the family’s secrets and an ability to manipulate them for her own ends.
 I have not seen the play, but understand that this is an extremely faithful adaptation. Frankly, that shows. August: Osage County (which I saw at this week’s AFI Fest 2013) is mostly housebound (in the dark, drab Weston residence) and much of its dialogue stylized and arch. Every character gets at least one showstopping speech that’s guaranteed to bring applause in a theater setting but doesn’t sound natural translated to film. Despite the intimacy of the setting, director Wells has his actors playing to the cheap seats at the very top of the house. There are several all-out screaming matches in the movie- including a knockdown catfight starring Streep and Roberts – and most of the time the actors, especially the leads, chomp down on the scenery with much gusto and unintentional hilarity that could make this erstwhile tragedy into a camp classic. The result is a lot of sound and fury that really does signify nothing. We don’t like many of these people at all (Cooper’s compassionate – if somewhat dim — Charlie excepted) and don’t care why they hate each other so much. We’ve seen this kind of dysfunctional family many times before on screen and on the stage. All August: Osage County adds to that canon is an escalated rate of yelling and plate-smashing. There are also individual moments and character reveals that simply don’t make sense, such as Charlie’s long, bumbling saying of grace (which seems to come from another film entirely) and Ivy’s bizarre love for Cumberbatch’s “Little” Charles, who is so emasculated that Ewan McGregor’s bland professor looks like George Clooney by comparison. Streep has the best and most hilarious lines and remains watchable even if she’s ramping up the histrionics, but unfortunately Roberts’ face is permanently fixed in a sneer and her line readings are either flat or roared like King Kong. The prize for best and most controlled acting probably goes to Cooper, whose Charlie at first seems as passive as the other men but eventually shows some backbone and spirit, and Martindale as his wife, who perhaps gives the most naturalistic performance and also hints at a more complicated inner life. As noted, McGregor is understated to the point of vanishing into the furniture, a fatal flaw in a movie where everyone else is shouting at the top of their lungs.
 Even the “shocking” twist (which one may or may not see coming) is more exhausting than startling after nearly two hours of watching this gruesome collection of genetically linked monsters verbally and emotionally slice and dice each other with no discernible endgame in sight. People just gradually leave, until only Streep and her loyal housekeeper (Misty Upham) are left. But there’s no transcendent moment or great final punchline. Even though August: Osage County is occasionally funny and the cast lights up like an out-of-control fireworks display, its overt theatricality makes the movie itself fizzle out.