Director: John Wells
Studio: Smokehouse Pictures
Stars: Meryl Streep, Dermot Mulroney, Julia Roberts
August: Osage County, the movie version of Tracy Letts’ much-lauded, funny-tragic play about an abusive matriarch and her hateful Oklahoma family, comes to your local moving picture show with quite the pedigree. We’re not only talking gangs of Tony awards and other prestigious theatrical kudos but also a Pulitzer, no less.
The film version is produced by George Clooney and Grant Heslov, directed by John Wells (Company Men) and features Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Chris Cooper, Ewan McGregor, Juliette Lewis, Benedict Cumberbatch and Dermot Mulroney, among other starry names. Attention must be paid. Or must it? Because sitting through two hours of a toxic family's crying, plate-flinging, door-slamming, screeching every line and acting, acting, acting may leave you emotionally battered but strangely unmoved, wondering what all the damn fuss was about in the first place. The material by the supernaturally gifted Letts—packed with witty, wise, magnificent dialogue—centers on the Weston brood, a clan as filled with secrets, resentments and anger as any out of Tennessee Williams or Eugene O’Neill.
It begins with the death of the family patriarch and published poet, played by Sam Shepard, whose unexpected good-bye summons family members for the first time in years to the side of their cancer-stricken, pillhead, emotionally volatile, venomous black widow spider of a Mother Goddam. A regretful woman with an acid-etched insult for pretty much everyone, Violet Weston is, of course, played by Streep in a performance that displays much technique but few surprises and even less subtext. Roberts is the smart, angry daughter who ran away fastest and farthest to Florida and got married to an intellectual philanderer (McGregor, who seems adrift as her estranged husband), Lewis plays the silliest and most desperate (Dermot Mulroney is her latest bad boyfriend) and absolute standout Julianne Nicholson (who’s paired with a good but underused Benedict Cumberbatch) is the most overlooked, resourceful and silently suffering.
The big theatrical fireworks are between Streep and Roberts and, although both stars work hard and are fun and showy, their scenes burn rather than scald. Others are so off that while they aim for the depth, insight and pain of Edward Albee and Carson McCullers they almost play like those famous movie parodies on the old Carol Burnett Show. Happily, other excellent stuff is contributed by Margo Martindale as Streep’s blowsy sister, Chris Cooper as Martindale’s husband and Abigail Breslin as the precocious daughter of McGregor and Roberts. The play clocked in at three hours, 20 minutes and change, but it was so powerful, rich, detailed and harrowing that it practically riveted you to the seat.
So much is missing from the movie that it feels hollowed out, its emotional roller coaster climbs and dives unearned and overblown. This is a CliffsNotes August: Osage County but it's still worth the trip.