There's a story, possibly apocryphal, that someone once asked the American playwright and actor Sam Shepard why he always writes about family, to which he replied, "What else is there?"
This notion of family being everything, all-encompassing, greater than the sum of its parts (if only those parts could come together) seems to be the inspiration behind Tracy Letts' Pulitzer Prize-winning and Tony Award-winning play August: Osage County that has now been turned into a feature film directed by John Wells and starring one hell of an ensemble cast. And though the story is clearly engrossing enough and the stage dialogue realistic enough to garner the accolades it received, the movie version is brought down by too much heavy, heavy drama packed into a two-hour bitchfest led by Meryl Streep, with backup bitching from Julia Roberts.
August: Osage County is playing November 8 at 6:15 at Sundance 8 as part of the Cinema Arts Festival. It will be released nationally in December.
Synopsis: The plot actually starts out darkly funny, which makes the familial airing of grievances and family secrets later in the film all the more unexpected and sickening. By the end, it's tough to remember why you were ever laughing in the first place.
The story is of the Weston family, helmed by the alcoholic but saintly father, Bev (Sam Shepard) and his wife, Violet (Streep), who is slowly succumbing to mouth cancer and pill addiction, but not going down without a fight. After Bev disappears and is later found dead, the result of a suicide, the extended family descends upon the spacious but stuffy Weston home in the barren plains of Oklahoma.The oldest daughter, Barbara (Roberts) arrives from Colorado with her estranged husband (Ewan McGregor) and 14-year-old daughter (Abigail Breslin), who is enacting a rebellious streak in response to her parents' marital troubles. The middle daughter, Ivy (Julianne Nichols), remained in Oklahoma to take care of her parents and carry on a relationship with her cousin, "Little" Charlie (a woefully miscast Benedict Cumberbatch), the son of Violet's sister Maddie Fae (Margo Martindale) and her husband, Charlie (Chris Cooper). The youngest daughter, Karen (Juliette Lewis) is the last to return to homestead with her older, suave fiance (Dermot Mulroney), who may be a hitman, in tow.
If this sounds like a sad but humorous assemblage, that's because it is, right up until it's not anymore. Right up until the drug addicted matriarch starts divulging family secrets and pushing all the right buttons in a seeming attempt to make everyone else just as miserable as she is. Along the way, there's suicide, affairs, incestuous relationships, sexual assault, drug addiction, paternity questions, dementia, abuse, promiscuity and enough close up still shots to make the Days of Our Lives cast envious.
Characters/Acting: The chameleon that is Streep allows herself to become fragile, chalky-white and wicked witch-like to inhabit the role of Violet, and, in true Streep form, she becomes her character almost to the point of being campy but not quite. The trouble with that is it was fun when Streep transformed into Julia Child in Julie and Julia or the villainous Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada. Streep was even remarkable as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, fake teeth aside. But here, watching Streep shake and mutter and fall apart onscreen, it's difficult not to think "Wow, Meryl Streep sure is acting well," when the thought should be focused more on the character, not the actress. Is Meryl Streep too good now to be anything but awesome Meryl Streep?
Julia Roberts, known more for her foray into rom-coms in the '90s and early 2000s than even her Oscar-winning performance as Erin Brokovitch in the eponymous film, shows her acting chops in a stellar performance as Barbara, trying to keep everything together when she, herself, is falling apart and trying to figure out what comes next. She shares the most screen time with Streep and gives the decrepit but fiesty Violet a clear target for her vitriol.
The rest of the ensemble clearly know their craft -- from the goofy, unwitting Juliette Lewis who's so off in her own little world it's more sad than funny, to the remarkable Chris Cooper who remains understated through most of the film but manages to unleash moments of genuine emotion and ardor without the violent yelling that other characters resort to. Mulroney is ideal as Steve, providing moments of levity though his stupidity and clueless nature, while Breslin tackles a more mature role than she's played in the past with grace and the chops to prove she's not just a child actress; she's here to stay.
Playwright Tracy Letts, who also wrote the screenplay for the film, has commented that initially, he didn't want British actors like McGregor and Cumberbatch to play this quintessential American family, but he ultimately gave in to the director's choice. He should have stuck to his guns. Neither actor is bad, but neither is ideally suited for the role. McGregor isn't given enough to work with, and Cumberbatch is unfortunately, too closely associated now with Sherlock Holmes and Julian Assange (characters he's recently played) to truly master the awkward Oklahoma boy.
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Analysis: On the stage, the show runs three and a half hours, and the audience must lean forward in their seats to take in all the action going on at once. On a movie screen, the characters, sometimes filmed one at a time to show minute reactions, jump out at the folks sitting silently in their seats, ultimately necessitating a settling in, a leaning back, in a vain attempt to get a more holistic perspective.
Another reason that the translation from stage to screen doesn't quite work is the way the drama has been condensed, so that every time there's an eruption and the audience thinks the climax has happened, they need only wait another 15 minutes before the revelations come and the drama begins anew. It's nearly too much heartache to bear in two hours, especially when it seems catharsis is always just a few scenes away.
It never comes, by the way. The catharsis. It's punch after punch after punch in the gut, which remains entertaining, but doesn't make the punches hurt any less.
Verdict: See it at home, where you can take a break to watch something light and mindless when things get too heavy, and where you can cry without fear of judgment from the teenager sitting next to you.