August: Osage County: Stage to Screen

As adapted and directed, August: Osage County, Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer and Tony-winning play about a two-generational dysfunctional family, inevitably betrays its theatrical origins.

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This is not such a bad idea as the film is cast with top talent, including Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts as the mother and daughter, respectively. The melodrama gives almost each member of the ensemble a meaty role (with several shining scenes) to demonstrate his/her respective skills and histrionics.

World premiering at the Toronto Film Fest, August: Osage County will be released by the Weinstein Co. on Christmas Day in time for serious awards-season considerations.

In his second film as director, John Wells (The Company Men) is able to maintain the bittersweet, comic-ironic-tragic tone of the play. In the hands of a more skillful director–say Mike Nichols or Steven Soderbergh-—August would have been a sharper, more poignant, more filmic tale, rather than a translation of a well-written play.

Though semi-autobiographical, Letts continues the long cherished American tradition of deconstructing the manner and mores of an eccentric family, following in the footsteps of O’Neill (Long Day’s Journey Into Night) and Tennessee Williams (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and others).

The more overtly cinematic touches—close-ups during the delivery of touching if long monologues—achieves the opposite of Wells’s intent, emphasizing even more that what we are watching is a play staged for the cameras.

Even so, the ensemble is so large and so distinguished that there’s enough happening on screen to keep our attention for the duration of the saga which, if memory serves, is much shorter than the play was. The darkly comic, deeply touching story is dominated by women, all strong-willed (even those who don’t acknowledge it).

The members live their lives of quiet desperation until, as often is the case in such domestic melodramas, a crisis brings them back to the Midwest house they grew up in, and to the domineering and eccentric matriarch (Meryl Streep), who had raised them.

It’s quickly established that Violet (Meryl Streep) is addicted to drugs—meds prescribed for her cancer, but also mood swings. Her husband Beverly (Sam Shepard) refers to her illness as “the punch line.” An alcoholic poet-turned-professor, Beverly hires a Native American housekeeper (Misty Upham) to take care of his needy, nasty wife, before his sudden disappearance.

What’s a motor-mouth matriarch to do alone and lonely? She summons her children–three daughters. On screen, the three siblings come across as types, much more so than on stage. Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) is single and close to home, which means she has endured her mom’s temper.

Barbara (Julia Roberts) comes in from Colorado with her estranged husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) and troubled daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin). Karen (Juliette Lewis) arrives from Florida with her slick fiancé Steve (Dermot Mulroney).
It doesn’t take long before Violet judges, criticizes, offends, and humiliates each one of them. And as in the play, most of the interactions are one-on-one, unfolding as give and take.

With the exception of Sam Shepard, acting-wise, the movie belongs to—or rather claimed by—the women.
This is a function of the writing as well as of the caliber of actresses. The mother and daughter are the chief adversaries, and so I will not be surprised if of the entire cast, Streep and Roberts (sharing the screen for the first time) will walk out with the discussions, reviews, and Oscar nominations.

Ultimately, “August: Osage County is too literary and middle-brow in its sensibility to satisfy demanding viewers. That said, it’s a perfectly watchable, and at times vastly entertaining, even if it’s is not as profound as the original play was.

About the play

Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name made its Broadway debut in December 2007 after premiering at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre earlier that year. It continued with a successful international run and was the winner of five Tony Awards in 2008, including Best Play.

Cast

Meryl Streep
Julia Roberts
Ewan McGregor
Chris Cooper
Abigail Breslin
Benedict Cumberbatch
Juliette Lewis
Margo Martindale
Dermot Mulroney
Julianne Nicholson
Sam Shepard
Misty Upham