Director: John Wells
Reviewed: 6 July 2014
August: Osage County is the film adaptation of Tracy Letts' caustic family play chronicling the disintegration of one family upon the disappearance of their patriarch one hot summer day. A showcase for some terrific actors and actresses, the film never takes off under its own power, feels stagey and less powerful than I suspect it is in the theater. Of course, to see Meryl Streep face off with Julia Roberts is certainly worth a look. Both Academy Award winning actresses were nominated for their work here.
In the theater, there is a shared intimacy between performer and audience. Voices must be loud enough to be heard in the back. Sets and backgrounds, while important, are supplanted by dramatic speeches and dialogue. The tension of moments and scenes has a palpability that exists differently in film. Take the centerpiece scene in August: Osage County. The matriarch of the family, Violet Weston (Meryl Streep), lights into nearly everyone at a dinner table, wielding her viciously worded power in a scene that goes on for quite a while; Violet literally has "fire in [her] mouth" with what her husband Beverly (Sam Shepherd) calls "a touch of mouth cancer," and the symbolic burning and truth-telling is not lost upon the audience as she scorches those around her for various real and imagined transgressions. Her three daughters have gathered around the table with her: Barbara (Julia Roberts), the failed wife of an academic; Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), the daughter who stayed and sacrificed; and Karen (Juliette Lewis), the flighty free-spirit who fled to Florida. The tension builds a bit, but every editing cut releases that intensity, and the final eruption has far less power than I think it would have onstage.
The entire Weston family is drawn together, and emotional manipulation abounds. The Tolstoy quote about "each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way" proves true. Secrets are released; skeletons in closets are revealed; and an almost mythical level of tragedy descends upon the denizens of this hot Oklahoma plain. In general, the scenes within the house have an oppressiveness that I found lacking in scenes in cars or outside. The story acquires so many characters and relationships that too many are given short shrift like Ewan McGregor's philandering husband or Abigail Breslin's petulant daughter. The film has an interest in the sins of the parents falling upon the children, as well as the inheritance of self-destruction, but it also seems to want to be more shocking in its verbal interactions among family members. Overall, the cast is strong with Chris Cooper and Margo Martindale as standouts in addition to Streep and Roberts. Meryl Streep transforms herself yet again, but it is worth saying it every time: she is the greatest actress of our time and expertly conveys Violet's grandeur and imperiousness but also her brittle fragility. August: Osage County has moments that work quite well, but it never leaps up and truly becomes a successful film. It always feels stagey and may just not have been translated for the screen in the best way. The ending in particular feels off; the film could have done without the last scene.
In the end, I found myself thinking of both the ancient text of King Lear and the modern film Nebraska, released the same year. All three stories are about aging and sick parents crashing into the selfishness of inheritance by the children. Who will take care of the sick? What do parents owe children? The reversal of power within a family is a compelling subject, and August: Osage County has a certain undeniable power, but I think I would rather see it onstage. And with Meryl Streep, of course.