You can choose your friends but you're stuck with your family
August: Osage County is based upon the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Tracy Letts and whilst the filmmakers attempt to open the scope somewhat, it never quite manages to break the shackles of its stage origins.The film’s title has to rank as one of the worst in recent memory and we’re still not quite sure what it means, aside from the fact that the story takes place in the month of August and is set in Osage County, Oklahoma. The film opens with a monologue from Beverly Weston, played by Sam Shepard, and there’s a bit of a trend of men having women’s names since Tracy Letts is also a bloke.
Immediately after this opening scene Beverly disappears, an event which acts as a catalyst for the rest of the film, bringing the disparate members of his very dysfunctional family back to the homestead. Almost the entire film takes place within the claustrophobic confines of their house and whilst this might well be the filmmaker’s intention, it does rather draw attention to the story’s stage-bound origins.
The film is very much about the nature of family and how ultimately it’s only fate that connects you to these people with whom you may have nothing in common. The plot primarily centres around the women in the Weston family, especially the acid-tongued matriarch Violet, played with scene-chewing relish by Meryl Streep, and her eldest daughter Barbara, played by Julia Roberts in what is her best performance in years. There are two other daughters, the middle one Ivy, played by Julianne Nicholson from Boardwalk Empire and Masters of Sex, and the youngest Karen, played by Juliette Lewis. Adding to this excess of oestrogen is Violet’s sister Mattie Fae, played by Margo Martindale, Barbara’s daughter Jean, played by Abigail Breslin, and Violet's Native American helper Johnna, played by Misty Upham.
Filling out what is genuinely an all-star cast are the men of the Weston family with Chris Cooper playing Mattie Mae’s husband Charlie and Ewan McGregor sporting is usual appalling American accent as Barbara’s estranged husband Bill. Presumably because there’s a shortage of decent American actors or perhaps because it’s a contractual obligation that he appear in every film made, Benedict Cumberbatch turns up as Charlie and Mattie Mae’s rather clueless son Little Charles. At least Cumberbatch manages a passable American accent and there is a certain pleasure to be had in watching him play someone of limited intelligence when he’s universally associated these days with Sherlock. Finally Dermot Mulroney turns up as Karen’s latest boyfriend, the Ferrari-driving and pot-smoking Steve.
Once everyone has converged on the family home the infighting, arguing and shocking revelations begin, with each member of the family getting chance in the spotlight. The middle section of the film centres on a protracted lunch that again betrays the film’s stage origins and must have been a nightmare to shoot. Streep dominates in the role of Violet and has picked up yet another Oscar nomination but it’s Roberts’ Barbara who is the emotional core of the film. Barbara is forced to try and hold the family together through the traumatic events of the story, whilst also dealing with the disintegration of her own marriage. She is the strongest of the three daughters but also the most like their mother, a fact that frightens Barbara. Roberts has been rewarded with an Oscar nomination of her own for Best Supporting Actress, although in reality her’s is the main character.
As for Streep, well Violet is the kind of part that actors love and she makes the most of it, dominating the scenes she’s in. Violet is a knowing but quite vicious haradin, whose bitterness over her troubled childhood leads her to treat he children with a terrible disdain. Violet appears to have no filter and the fact that she’s popping pills like Smarties probably doesn’t help. In a minor plot point it is revealed that Violet has mouth cancer, the irony that the source of all this viscousness has been so afflicted isn’t lost on the rest of the characters. However as good as Street is, there’s always a sense that she’s acting and the performance does border on being over-the-top. That might be fine on the stage but it can become over-bearing in the intimate confines of a cinematic close-up.
Whilst well made and superbly acted, the film never manages to transcend its stage origins.
This in essence is the problem with the film because whilst it’s well acted, dramatic and at times very funny, it always feels like a play that’s being filmed. The screenplay is by Letts himself and although he attempts to open the story up and set some scenes outside the house, they are few and far between. His failure to completely move the story away from its stage-bound origins is strange because two other plays by Letts - Bug and Killer Joe - both had successful screen adaptations at the hands of director William Friedkin. So it certainly is possibly to move Letts' characters and stories into a more cinematic universe but unfortunately August: Osage County never quite manages to achieve this.
There are occasional widescreen shots of the desolate and impossibly flat Oklamhoman landscape, which strangely only serve to increase the sense of isolation and claustrophobia. In fact at one point Violet tries to run away across a field, until Barbara points out that there’s nowhere to run to. The characters also constantly moan about the stifling heat, which always seems very theatrical since they never actually look that hot. The film is produced by George Clooney and Grant Heslov and directed by John Wells, who was the executive producer on ER. This background in television doesn’t really help in transitioning the play from the stage to the screen and the lack of resolution after all the revelations is typical of a play but slightly frustrating in a film.
Ultimately August: Osage County is well acted and attractively shot story, with a strong cast and some experienced talent behind the camera but it always feels like a stage play. There are plenty of scenes of drama and even some laugh-out-loud moments, along with a towering performance from Meryl Streep and a nicely understate one from Julia Roberts. However it all feels rather unsatisfying on the big screen and will probably play better on the small screen, so wait for its release on home video.
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