One has to give it up to John Wells. The creator of ER and The West Wing long ago figured out that the best way to make his job easier was to simply put together the finest ensemble possible, drop the camera in a room somewhere, and let his actors work. It paid off with his feature debut Company Men, and he didn't change a darn thing for his follow-up. But the nails-on-a-chalkboard August: Osage County could use a more creative hand to help break it free from Tracy Letts' award-winning play into a version better suited for the big screen.
A rundown of the cast would lead one to believe NOTHING could possibly screw something like this up: Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ewan McGregor, Margo Martindale, Sam Shepard, Abigail Breslin, Misty Upham, Juliette Lewis, Julianne Nicholson, Abigail Breslin; all of whom are great and bring the requisite amount of piss 'n vinegar to the tale of the bitter Weston clan. Yet despite terrific performances, August: Osage County is basically a two-hour bitch fest with so many ugly reveals it strains the limits of credibility.
The Oklahoma-based Weston family have been estranged for years; splintered off into various locations where they can presumably loathe one another from afar. The film opens with the head looney in the bin, cancer-stricken drug-addled Violet Weston (Streep), all stringy-haired and maniacal like the Joker, harassing her poet husband Beverly (Shepard, tremendous in a tiny part) as he introduces their new Native American housemaid (Upham). When Beverly vanishes shortly thereafter, the Weston clan comes swooping in from all corners, each bringing a bushel of really ugly secrets and personal problems.
The film mostly follows the troubled Weston women, in particular Violet's three daughters. The oldest one Barbara (Roberts) is trying to hide her separation from husband Bill (McGregor), while their daughter (Breslin) flirts with rebelliousness. Barbara's younger sister Ivy (Nicholson) stayed close to home and is now resentful for it; while the youngest Weston girl Karen (Lewis) arrives from Florida with a sketchy new fiancé (Dermot Mulroney) whose riches can't hide his wandering eye. And really, that's just the tip of an iceberg that's threatening to sink the entire family as they're crammed under one roof in sweltering Oklahoma summer heat (the gauge reads 108 degrees) and allowed to stew in their own juices. Throw in Violet's boisterous sister Mattie Fae (Martindale) and her quarreling with even-keeled husband Charles (Cooper) over their awkward son "Little" Charles (Cumberbatch) and there's barely a moment when something venomous isn't spewing out of someone's mouth.
Dysfunctional families are something we all can relate to, and often find some measure of humor in, but there is so much pure hatred in the Weston family that it's tough to buy into them even talking on the telephone, much less showing up during a tragedy. In one particularly toxic dinner scene, Violet cuts loose on everyone under her roof, spewing an endless stream of "truths" so painful the festivities erupt into a battle royale Vince McMahon would approve of. And yet it's just the first of many virulent showdowns, each revealing something more awful than the one before to the point where you just become numb to it.
With so much talent involved of course there are small moments that hit just the right notes, during those rare times when people stop screaming and start talking. That's when the actors are given enough room to provide nuance and tone to their words, whether they be words of support or disdain. But Letts, who adapted the screenplay himself, has delivered a hammer of a script that perceives nearly every scene as a nail even when subtlety would be more appropriate. Wells doesn't do much to stray beyond Letts' original vision, which probably works better split up into acts on a stage than it does in a movie where there's no time to catch a breath. Streep has likely earned herself another Oscar nomination for her snarling, acidic turn as Violet, donning a big ugly wig and cutting loose in a way we haven't seen since The Devil Wears Prada. Actually, Violet would probably chew Miranda Priestly up and spit her out. Roberts is also very good as Barbara, who has grown cold, embittered, and begins to recognize how like her mother she really is. In the underrated category Julianne Nicholson will likely be overlooked because she's not a big enough name, but she's great at capturing the angst most neglected middle children contend with. And old reliable Chris Cooper does what he always does, taking a small role and delivering a stirring moment of emotional truth that cuts through the bullcrap. On the other hand Cumberbatch is woefully miscast as the cowardly "Little" Charles, although it could be because we're so used to seeing him play stronger characters.
As cherished a work as August: Osage County is on the stage, it can't simply be made into a movie without significant tweaking. Whether Wells failed to realize that or was unable to change it really doesn't matter because in the end this film was designed to be an actors' showcase first and foremost.