August: Osage CountyReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 01/10/14 13:48:44
Staggering out of the screening of "August: Osage County," I didn't want to review it--I wanted to try to organize some kind of congressional committee to get to the bottom of how one single movie could possible squander as many precious resources as it does over the space of two excruciating hours. This is a film that has one of the most celebrated plays of recent years (bagging every award from the Tony to the Pulitzer Prize) for its source material, a sprawling cast jam-packed with quality actors, led by none other than thespic queen bee Meryl Streep herself, to bring it to life and a director who. . .well, take another look at that cast.You would think that such a collision of elements would result in something interesting but the film somehow manages to waste them so completely that after a while, I was simply stunned at what I was witnessing--a dramatically limp and cinematically atrocious failure that, despite all of the prestige surrounding it, plays like nothing so much as an extended episode of "Mama's Family," lacking only the plausible narrative, interesting characters, memorable banter or any recognizable point to the proceedings.As the film opens, celebrated Oklahoma-based poet Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard) hires a stoically symbolic Indian (Misty Upham) as a caretaker before mysteriously disappearing and eventually turning up dead in a nearby lake. The ensuing funeral turns into a de facto reunion for the extended family but his widow, the pill-popping and truth-telling Violet (Meryl Streep), sees the affair as an excuse to expel her poisonous attitude towards the very people that she is technically supposed to love and neither her recent bereavement nor her bout with mouth cancer will stop her from making everyone else as miserable as she is. Within the walls of Violet's sweltering home, old hurts are revisited, secrets are betrayed and no one is left unscathed, though the others do get their licks in from time to time as well.
Among her victims are her three daughters, the estranged Barbara (Julia Roberts), who arrives with her estranged husband (Ewan McGregor) and sullen teen daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin) in tow, the flaky Karen (Juliette Lewis), who brings her sleazy fiancee (Dermot Mulroney) along for the ride and Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), the one who got stuck at home while the others got away. Also popping in to receive their licks are Violet's sister (Margo Martindale), her husband (Chris Cooper) and the walking twitch that is their son, "Little Charles" (Benedict Cumberbatch). To give an example of the level of dysfunction being dealt with here, consider the fact that when the clandestine love affair between first cousins Ivy and Little Charles is introduced, it hardly raises an eyebrow--partly because it seems comparatively benign and partly because if a plot point like that is brought up so early in the proceedings, it can only be a stepping stone to something much ickier in the third act.
Having not seen it in its stage incarnation, I did not go into the screening of "August: Osage County" with any preconceived notions of what I was about to see but never in my wildest dreams did expect anything as utterly ineffectual as this film. The screenplay, for which playwright Tracy Letts himself did the adaptation, is basically a hodgepodge of Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee, Eugene O'Neill and Jerry Springer that has been spiked with hackneyed plot twists and over-the-top profanity, strained through exceptionally strained black humor and dropped into the viewer's lap to fester for two solid hours of sheer unpleasantness to deliver the author's message, which essentially boils down to "Mom, you're a ----!" On stage, I can see how such material might work with the energy of the actors driving things along to such a degree that the contrivances don't reveal themselves until much later on. With the inevitable distance that comes from its transference from the stage to screen, that energy is gone and the deep flaws in the writing are revealed for all to see. Also, the sprawling show, which clocked in at over three hours on stage, has undergone a considerable slimming here and perhaps in the rush to get from one big moment to the next, the moments of actual character development were given the axe.
Then again, it could just be that the wrong person was elected to bring "August: Osage County" to the screen. Letts has had two of his previous plays, "Bug" and "Killer Joe," transformed into films by William Friedkin and in both cases, he managed to take the equally scabrous material and translated it into cinematic terms without losing any of the raw power of their stage incarnations. For this outing, the reins have gone to John Wells, the former producer of "E.R." whose only previous directorial credit was the 2010 drama "Company Men," a film that am almost willing to bet money that you had forgotten even existed until I mentioned it just now. God only knows how he came to snag what was presumably a coveted assignment--though the presence of George Clooney as one of the co-producers might shed some light on that question--but he is simply not up to the task at hand.
Like so many filmmakers working with material originally designed for the stage, he has decided to "open up" some scenes so that they take place outside of the suffocating grasp of the Weston homestead. By doing this, he continually dissipates whatever energy that might be generating and by reminding us that there is a real world out there, a concept that can be ignored thanks to the inherently stylization of the stage, viewers will constantly be asking themselves why these people just don't get up from the table when the shit starts flying instead of sitting around to take their lumps. Beyond that, he demonstrates no particular cinematic flair of note and is more or less content throughout to just plop the camera down and get out of the way while the actors go through their heavy-duty emoting.
And boy, is there a lot of such emoting on display here--so much of it that it feels as if the cast is going after a new SAG award for Most Acting. To be fair, one can hardly blame them for this approach as these roles are pretty much tailor-made for actors ready to gnaw the scenery without reservation. Once again, though, this is an approach that makes sense on the stage, where the emotions have to be outsized in order to reach the cheap seats, but which comes across as grotesquely over-scaled when attempted in the more intimate surroundings of film. Leading the pack in this regard is Streep, whose histrionics as Violet almost need to be seen to be disbelieved. One could theoretically argue that her performance makes sense because Violet herself (who at one point claims Elizabeth Taylor as her hero) is a woman whose entire life is a deliberately over-the-top performance designed specifically to provoke and aggravate. That sounds interesting in theory but there is not a single moment where she makes Violet interesting enough for viewers to want to endure her huffing and puffing for the duration.
As for the others in the cast, they are good actors but like Streep, they are stuck playing walking cliches being jerked around by the plot machinations rather than vaguely plausible individuals. The only one who comes closest to making their character into an actual person with recognizable feelings is Julia Roberts, who tones down her normally sunny persona to play someone who is forced to confront the person responsible for a good chunk of the misery in her life and is increasingly horrified to discover that she is not that far removed from them. Typically, the film short-circuits even this by concluding with what appears to be a tacked-on moment of faux-catharsis that feels faker than the studio finale of "Brazil."
."August: Osage County" is, at its heart, a sour examination of familial dysfunction and yet, it is so remarkably cruddy that it will actually link hitherto disparate audience members in their shared distaste for its failings. People who enjoyed it on the stage will probably come away from it muttering about how Hollywood ruined a great play. Those who never saw it live will find themselves wondering what all the fuss could have possibly been about. Those in the mood to see a group of great actors bouncing off of each other will be disappointed to discover how few sparks they manage to generate. Those lured into the film because of the fairly misleading TV commercials promising a wacky and politely off-beat comedy will no doubt be appalled by its unremitting bleakness and lack of any real payoff. In fact, I can only think of one group of people who really and truly deserve to sit through the film--too bad they are the characters themselves. Everyone else, I suspect, will find the strength to continue one with it only by idly daydreaming that Matthew McConaughey will eventually show up at the Weston door with enough drumsticks for everyone
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