Playing at Philadelphia’s Ritz Five Landmark Theater, Tracy Letts’ screen adaptation of his Pulitzer-award winning play works fairly well, holding up after its transition from stage to film. The play explores dysfunction, anger, codependence, secrets and all types of violence (verbal or otherwise) amongst a southwestern plains family during a particularly blistering summer month. Meryl Streep once again anchors the entire acting enterprise, if not the entire film. The dialogue is copiously complex and brilliant, even while including funny, everyday colloquialism. Margo Martindale and Chris Cooper steal the show in their own primary and secondary roles, intrinsic to the eventual plot climax while being marginal toward the beginning of the film.
Even through the wonderful acting, perfect set construction and haunting ocher cinematography, there seems something lost in the end, a sort of continuity most plays retain in their birthplace, the stage, but struggle to retain once transcribed to film. Even Julia Roberts, who for whatever reason- whether connection to the south (Roberts was born in Georgia), or rising to the brilliant writing and/or collective cast’s luminary acting talent, displays the best acting I have ever seen her conjure- can’t save the film from falling short of exceptionality. As this reviewer indicates, “gone” is Roberts' “high-wattage” smile; Roberts conveys stark and sour bitterness.
Tracy Letts, often designated as Eugene O’Neill’s reincarnation, writing similar themes as explored in “Long Day’s Journey into Night”, adapted his work by writing the screenplay himself. It is odd to realize he is an accomplished writer, as many know him as the Central Intelligence Agency officer in Showtime’s “Homeland”, often trading acting chops and meeting abilities like those of Mandy Patinkin and Claire Danes’ on equal ground. But make no mistake- Letts’ substantial theatrical cannon, including the previously film-adapted work “Bug” (a horrible filmic misfire), evidences his brilliance as a playwright.
This is a dark play, and a dark film. It deals with difficult issues- family secrets, generational abusive cruelty, drug addiction, serial marriages, underage sexual exploration, divorce, alcoholism, racism and suicide. It is not for the faint of heart or mind. But if you are looking for exceptionally well-written drama, if at times distant and wooden (no longer live, no longer on a stage)…then this is the film for you.