Is it possible for a movie to fail when it is based on a Pulitzer-Prize winning play and features terrific performances from an all-star cast? The answer is “yes” as “August: Osage County” sadly demonstrates.
Based on Tracy Letts’ award-winning play, with screenplay by Letts and direction by John Wells, “August: Osage County” is about the Weston family who have gathered in Oklahoma following the disappearance and subsequent death of Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard), the family patriarch. To say the Weston family is dysfunctional is an understatement. From the movie’s opening scenes, we know this is a given. To cope with this dysfunction, each family member…either by birth or marriage…has developed a sharp, dark and biting way of communicating with one another. If you can’t meet that tone head-on, you either keep what you’re feeling inside, like middle daughter, Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), who has stayed in Oklahoma to look after her parents, until she can no longer control her seething rage at the slights and jabs taken over the years. Or, you leave the home as soon as you can, like oldest daughter, Barbara (Julia Roberts), and youngest daughter, Karen (Juliette Lewis), only to discover, in Barbara’s case, that she is in danger of turning into a miniature version of her mother, Violet (Meryl Streep).
Also entering the reunion fray is Violet’s sister, Mattie Fae Aiken (Margo Martindale), and Mattie Fae’s husband, Charlie (Chris Cooper), and their son, Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch). You can tell that Charlie loves his wife and that he’s learned to deal with her sharp tongue by either ignoring her or occasionally snapping right back. And Little Charles? Let’s just say there’s more to him than meets the eye. Barbara comes to the family gathering with her estranged husband, Bill (Ewan McGregor) and surly teenage daughter, Jean (Abigail Breslin). It’s hard not to imagine Jean turning into a carbon copy of her mother unless something shakes Barbara out of her bitterness. Two newcomers to the reunion are Karen’s fiancé, Steve (Dermot Mulroney), and Johnna (Misty Upham), the Native American Beverly hired right before his disappearance to serve as a live-in caregiver and cook.
Although “August: Osage County” is female-driven, director Wells and writer Letts don’t let the male co-stars roll over and play dead. Each actor has his moment in the sun and each makes the most of the time he has on screen. Especially good are Cumberbatch and Cooper. Cumberbatch has some wonderful scenes with Martindale, Cooper and Nicholson…most especially Nicholson. Of all the characters, his is the most fragile and Cumberbatch heartbreakingly conveys that fragility. Cooper has some great scenes with Martindale and Streep, which let us in on how he’s managed to survive in this family.
But ultimately this play is about the women and their relationships with one another. Meryl Streep’s Violet is at the top of the heap…she is really the one who made the women the way they are. There are some women who shouldn’t have children and Violet is one of them. Suffering from mouth cancer, she now has an excuse for some of her pill-taking. Cancer aside, the truth is, she’s been addicted to pills for most of her life with devastating consequences. But although Violet’s life may be difficult, it’s impossible to empathize with her because the more we learn about her, the more we dislike her. She doesn’t appear to possess a single redeeming quality. Streep seems to be at a loss at how to play Violet. Her portrayal feels very over the top. I rarely think about how someone else would play a part that Meryl Streep has undertaken, but I found myself wondering about Bette Davis and what she might have done with such a role.
Julia Roberts, however, is terrific. Her Barbara is the best piece of work she’s done in a long time. She more than holds her own with Streep, and when she’s on the screen, she owns it. Roberts is very convincing as the older sister. Although her character is terribly flawed, Barbara seems to be the glue holding the family together over the course of their days together in Oklahoma. Julianne Nicholson’s Ivy is less showy, but is critical to the family underpinnings. As the movie progresses, she starts to come into her own and Nicholson is perfect in illustrating that growth.
Abigail Breslin is becoming a terrific actress. Her work with Roberts and McGregor is very good and she makes you care about the future of her character. Margo Martindale is one of those actresses who never seems to get it wrong, and her Mattie Fae is no exception. Her character can be unbelievably cruel; however, Martindale is great at making us understand what lies beneath the cruelty. Juliette Lewis’ Karen has less screen time, but Lewis gives an outstanding turn as someone desperate for love, no matter how despicable the source of that love may be.
So given all this wonderful acting, what makes “August: Osage County” not the success one would expect? The fact that it’s two hours of mostly unrelenting, in-your-face unpleasantness doesn’t help its cause. What works on stage, when the audience is at a distance, doesn’t necessarily work on-screen, where there’s no break from the screaming and shouting diatribes. The movie becomes difficult to sit through; not because of the subject matter, but in how the subject matter is presented.
“August: Osage County” is at its best in those rare instances of quiet conversation. Unfortunately, there just isn’t enough quiet.