August: Osage County – Film Review

The title refers to the time and place where the action takes place.  It’s August in Osage County, just outside of Pawhuska, Oklahoma, and the Weston family are gathering.

Conflicts erupt when a family meets in order to support the mother (Meryl Streep) whose husband (Sam Shepard) has disappeared.  Within a few days they discover that the man has committed suicide.  The visiting family members remain long enough to attend the funeral and to ensure that the mother, a drug-addled matriarch suffering from mouth cancer, is settled.  During that time, tempers will flare, secrets will be revealed and certain family members will eventually leave the house, never to return.  It’s an ugly reunion.

The piece began as an epic length, black, comedic play by Tracy Letts who won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2008.  It ran on Broadway for more than a year where it was lauded with accolades from both critics and audiences, most of which were deserved.  It also proved to be a massive hit around the world, so it was inevitable that such a well received and prestigious production such as August: Osage County would become film.  But here’s where things change.

 

Playwright Letts has adapted his own play, trimmed the length by at least thirty minutes, and expanded the setting so that instead of having everything take place inside the Weston house we have family conversations in cars, in the backyard, off the highway and at one point, in a field.  The action – a series of family confrontations where lies and secrets are exposed during the gathering – had an automatic, in-built feel of claustrophobia that created pressure and even helped the humor.  You laughed, not only because of the absurdity of the behavior but because the laughter actually helped break the tension.  It was a release.  By removing some of the key moments from the living room and having them played out in more open areas, as they are here in the film, part of that confining spell is diminished, but it also does something else.  Transferring this admittedly riveting piece of work from the stage to the screen may give us the chance to appreciate some outstanding performances from a well-rounded, experienced cast, some of whom have never been better, but it also highlights the shortcomings of the play.

Watching a family continually bicker on stage is one thing.  There’s a distance between the audience and the action; you sit and observe, laugh at the absurdities, feel shocked with the family reveals and are eventually saddened by the outcomes.  The play is a moving piece of comedic drama that leaves you exhausted but sated.  Film is different.  There’s no distance to overcome.  With close-ups and the ability to move around, following a character wherever they go, observing them at close range no matter what they do, you’re right there at the dinner table with them, and they’re not fun to know.

Thank God we can’t tell the future,” states one of the daughters, Julia Roberts reflecting on what is happening around her to her own daughter.  We’d never get out of bed.” 

 

The two things you’ll come away with are the performances and the writing.  At this point, what is there new to say about Meryl Streep that hasn’t been said before, and by more qualified writers?  Despite the occasional cloudiness and slur of speech brought on by the recent addiction to prescription drugs, as the sharp-tongued matriarch with the incisive mind, Streep can’t fail but command attention at every moment.   But despite the standout accomplishment of a practically perfect performance, Streep is fully supported by a cast whose development and maturity as performers seems to have come together specifically for this one production. 

Despite her presence in Notting Hill, where she was essentially playing a variation of herself, the undeniable success and popularity of Julia Roberts as a cinematic actor has left many baffled.  Her smile and the fact that she’s appeared in several ‘A’ list projects has over the years elevated her to super-stardom, but it’s here in August: Osage County where, for the first time in a long career, she truly delivers.  Julia Roberts has never been better.

 

The same can be said for both Chris Cooper and Margo Martindale as husband and wife, Charles and Mattie Fae Aiken.  When Mattie Fae continually berates and belittles her son, Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch with a solid southern accent) the father finally explodes.  It’s perhaps the one moment in the film that actually satisfies.  After thirty-eight years of marriage and listening to his wife constantly act mean against her own boy, he’s had enough.  If you can’t find a generous place in your heart for your own son,” he angrily states, “We’re not gonna make it to thirty-nine!” You may want to cheer.

Writer Tracy Letts has faithfully adapted his play and kept the essence of the piece intact – his days as a performer in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? have clearly influenced his writing – but these unpleasant characters with their constant fighting, bickering, foul-mouthed insults and the mean spiritedness of their actions against their own kind are not good company.  Even though there are those for whom you may feel some sympathy – the secret relationship between Little Charles and his cousin is somewhat touching – on the whole, sharing time this closely with the Westons is not an experience to savor or enjoy.  They need to be kept at arms-length where they should have remained, in a play. 

 MPAA Rating:  R     Length:  119 Minutes     Overall Rating:  7 (out of 10)

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