Tracy Lett’s epic three hour play August: Osage County is a renowned work of fiction that has won the Pulitzer Prize and a number of Tony Awards since its debut in 2007. It’s a darkly comedic play about a dysfunctional family in the South, featuring an ensemble of characters that explore the dynamics of family and the nature of familial love. It has been recreated on stage time and time again, embodying the harsh comedy and hysterically manipulative characters in all their glory. This particular film adaptation stars the amazing talents of Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Juliette Lewis, Abigail Breslin, Margo Martindale and Benedict Cumberbatch, among others. However, despite the impressive star power on display here, you’re sure to get a better experience from your local theatre.
In the opening scene, Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard), a poet and alcoholic, hires a Native American, Johnna (Misty Upham), as live-in cook/housekeeper. Soon afterwards he disappears which gets the story going: his widow, Violet (Streep), suffering from cancer of the mouth, though she still smokes while popping far too many pills, welcomes friends and family home to search for him. These include her three daughters, Barbara (Roberts), who is estranged from husband Bill (McGregor); Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), who has never married; and Karen (Lewis) who has had too many relationships and who brings along her latest ‘fiance’, the sleazy Steve (Dermot Mulroney). Rounding out the family is Jean (Breslin), the 14-year-old daughter of Barbara and Bill, Violet’s sister, Mattie Fae (Martindale), her husband Charles (Chris Cooper) and their son, Little Charles (Cumberbatch).
With the screenplay written by Letts herself, its hard to understand why this film just doesn’t work. It’s forgettable, which is difficult to believe considering the amazing acting work here. As spectators we are introduced to the myriad of characters and observe the goings on as Johnna does, establishing our own views on what the characters are doing, and if there actions are appropriate or justified. The problem is that we as an audience don’t care enough about these people on screen to form an opinion, but instead faced with mild boredom.
In saying that, the acting here is of a very high standard. Streep is fantastic as the drug-addicted Violet, who is unnecessarily hateful and delusional about her loneliness, she’s both unimpressed and depressed. There are some hits and misses with her dialogue where a line would be better delivered sarcastically or with deep regret, a concept that most other actresses in this role are able to do but may have been interpreted incorrectly by director John Wells. Roberts is on equal par with her role in Erin Brokovich, captivating and headstrong while also succumbing to the level of her hurtful mother. Julianne Nicholson is also wonderful as the “sister who stayed”, a caring and giving woman but avoiding the realities of life.
Unfortunately the array of characters become over the top caricatures as Wells changes the intimate setting in the original play into a collection of scenes that show us only the surface of these characters without delving further into their lives. There are times where the screen is captivating, namely in a scene between Martindale, Cooper and Cumberbatch but the rest of the film just isn’t as interesting. All in all, the film doesn’t rise to the expectations from a cast with such a high quality, though the films themes of generational cycle of behaviour is affecting, making August: Osage County a film that is watchable, but one that won’t be remembered as it should have.
Originally published on CelebrityOZ, January 18, 2014.
Watch the trailer for August: Osage County trailer: