Directed by: John Wells.
Written by: Tracy Letts based on his play.
Starring: Julia Roberts (Barbara Weston), Meryl Streep (Violet Weston), Benedict Cumberbatch ('Little' Charles Aiken), Abigail Breslin (Jean Fordham), Ewan McGregor (Bill Fordham), Dermot Mulroney (Steve), Sam Shepard (Beverly Weston), Juliette Lewis (Karen Weston), Chris Cooper (Charles Aiken), Julianne Nicholson (Ivy Weston), Margo Martindale (Mattie Fae Aiken), Misty Upham (Johnna).
Adapting plays for the screen is not as easy as it would seem. Plays are often set in only a few locations, and benefit from the claustrophobia of the location to keep their characters crashing into each other. As well, plays are often longer than the typical movie – and hence have more time to develop their stories and their characters. Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County is one of the great American plays in recent years – there is hardly an award the play didn’t win, and when I saw it on Broadway a few years ago, it became an instant favorite of mine. It was inevitable that a screen version was going to be made sooner or later. The movie, directed by John Wells, from a Letts screenplay, is certainly more uneven than the play – with a few roles miscast, and trims being made (as well as additions) to make the lead character played by Julia Roberts more sympathetic than she was on stage. And Wells, who is inexperienced as a movie director, doesn’t really bring much to the material – he sees his job as to simply sit back and let his great cast cut loose. If August: Osage County the movie was as good as August: Osage County the play, it would easily be one of the best movies of the year. Unfortunately, it isn’t. That isn’t to say that the movie is bad – far from it. When the movie works, and much of it works, it is wonderful, and the film is never less than entertaining. Yet, I have to admit that this is another example of a play making an uneasy transition to screen.
The movie is about the extremely dysfunctional Weston clan. Patriarch Beverly ( Sam Shepard) is a drunk, and when he goes missing, and eventually turns up dead of an apparent suicide, his pill popping wife Violet (Meryl Streep) calls her three daughters to come back home. Barbara (Julia Roberts) shows up with her husband Bill (Ewan McGregor), who has recently left her for a younger woman, and their teenage daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin). Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) is the only daughter who has stayed close to home, but she may now be finally ready to strike out on her own. Karen (Juliette Lewis) is the flighty youngest daughter, who shows up with yet another new man in tow – Steve (Dermot Mulroney). Then there is Violet’s sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale), her long suffering husband Charles (Chris Cooper) and their screw-up of a son, Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch). Native American caregiver Johnna (Misty Upham) rounds out the cast. Through the course of the movie, the family will fight and yell and scream at each other, and have all of their secrets lain bare. Unlike most movies about dysfunctional families, which eventually end up being uplifting, as the family eventually agrees to come together, there is little hope for the Weston family. This is their last hurrah – it’s almost inconceivable that these people will ever come together again after what they go through during the course of the movie.
Because director Wells doesn’t do very much visually with the play (a better director – like William Friedkin, who has had two recent triumphs with Bug and Killer Joe based on Letts play would have helped), basically the movie becomes all about the writing and the performances. The writing, by Letts, is brilliant – giving these actors great dialogue, and complex characters to play who gradually reveal more and more levels to them as they go on. The performances are mostly excellent – with a few exceptions. Worst is probably Benedict Cumberbatch, who doesn’t seem to be able to master the Oklahoma accent (or really, to even try), and cannot make Little Charles into anything other than a sad, pathetic loser. Abigail Breslin doesn’t really dig into her character as Jean – playing the whole movie with the same blank faced monotone. Dermot Mulroney doesn’t quite get the dual layers of Steve – outwardly charming, but also quite creepy. Ewan McGregor also seems slightly lost – although it must be said that many of his characters best moments have been cut – a result, I think, of Wells trying to make Roberts’ Barbara a much more sympathetic character than was on stage. Misty Upham has had here already small role pretty much slashed to nothing.
But the rest of the cast works wonderfully. Shepard nails Beverly’s opening scene – making him a character that haunts the rest of the movie, as he should. Julianne Nicholson has the least glamorous of the three sister roles, but she makes Ivy into the movie sole sympathetic character – a weak woman who has allowed herself to be a victim for her whole life. The role of Karen seems to have been written for Juliette Lewis, and her unique skills that are wrong for most movies, are perfect here. Chris Cooper and Margo Martindale are perfect as the long married Charles and Mattie Fae – a couple who has gone through a lot, and may be the only two characters who benefit from all the secrets coming out. And Julia Roberts mainly nails Barbara. I was worried about Roberts in the role – she’s a major star, and Barbara is an ornery character, who gets more profane and volatile as the movie goes along. She is undercut, somewhat, by the trims Wells makes to try and make her a more sympathetic character – but that’s hardly Roberts’ fault – she dives into the role, and while she is not as good as Amy Morton (aka Mrs. Tracy Letts) was on Broadway, she more than holds her own.
Best of all, obviously, is Meryl Streep as Violet. This is the type of role Streep was made for. In a role like Violet – who spends most of the movie either high, or in withdrawal – and all of it as a profane, cruel woman who says whatever she wants (under the guise of truth telling), subtle just won’t do – and Streep doesn’t do subtle. She rips into Violet, and relishes every cruel line and big moment. Yes, it’s fair to say that Streep goes over the top – but this role pretty much requires her to do so.
In short, although August: Osage County has more than its fair share of flaws, and doesn’t come close to reaching the heights of the play, I still thought it was a superb piece of entertainment – an acting showcase for its largely great cast. No, Wells should not have tried to make Roberts’ Barbara into a more sympathetic character (the final scene of the movie, which wasn’t in the play – at least in the version I saw at TIFF, but may have been removed for theatrical release is terrible). And Wells should have done more to shape the material for the screen. Still expecting the film to live up to the play was a nearly impossible high expectation. Realistically speaking, August: Osage County is probably about as good as we could have expected. Not the masterpiece the play was, but still an extremely entertaining film.
Note: This review is based on my viewing of the film at TIFF in September 2013. It is my understanding that since the premiere there, Wells and company have tinkered with the film a little bit, so the theatrical version is probably slightly different than the film I saw (it apparently does still have the same final scene that I really, really dislike however).