AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY
Director: John Wells
Starring: Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Julianne Nicholson, Juliette Lewis, Chris Cooper, Margo Martindale, Ewan McGregor, Abigail Breslin, Dermot Mulroney, Benedict Cumberbatch, Sam Shepard
Did you have some family drama over the holidays? People acting crazy around the dinner table? Just wait until you meet the Weston family. Your family will seem a whole heck of a lot more normal after you spend a few hours with the Westons. Patriarch Beverly (Shepard) is an alcoholic and former poet who can no longer tolerate his marriage to Violet (Streep). After thirty plus years and three daughters, the love they once had for each other has vanished. Violet is suffering from mouth cancer and has become addicted to her pain pills and chain smoking. The audience knows from the very first scene the kind of woman, wife, and mother that Violet has become. The word “filter” does not apply to her as she has no judgment on the things that come out of her mouth. She has a loud, brash, tells it like it is mentality no matter who is on the receiving end of her tirade.
After Beverly’s sudden disappearance, their family is reunited in their home in Osage County, Oklahoma. Their eldest daughter Barbara (Roberts) returns home with her husband Bill (McGregor) and daughter Jean (Breslin). Barbara is a bit of a control freak even though she watches her marriage fall apart and has to put up with mother’s awful behavior and attitude toward her. Violet lays down huge guilt trips to her and has no qualms about telling her how Beverly was always disappointed her in. Barbara has a strained relationship with her two sisters Ivy (Nicholson) and Karen (Lewis). Violet’s sister Mattie Fae (Martindale) and her husband (Cooper) and son (Cumberbatch) arrive with their own family dynamic. Once the whole Weston clan is united under the one roof in the hot summer Oklahoma heat, Violet unleashes a fury of “truth-telling” as various family secrets are unleashed leaving no one untouched and unaccounted for.
Playwright Tracy Letts (Bug, Killer Joe) has adapted the screenplay from his own highly successful play. I have seen the staged version, so it is a bit tough going into the movie without instantly drawing comparisons to that version. The dense play is a three and half hour meaty piece that, for obvious reasons, had to be severely cut down and edited to make it work as a movie. Letts is able to keep the integrity and heart of these characters in place without having to sacrifice the supporting characters or their story lines. The piece itself is a very heightened and intense look into this family. I do not know any family like this one that has so many problems with each person. Some of the story gets very dramatic and heavy in the way of the dysfunctional character development which works well on stage as you sit on the edge of your seat watching and hearing these massive family fights. I think director John Wells tried so hard at minimizing that tone to a more naturalistic feel to fit the screen that there is an element that gets lost in translation here. This is only the second movie John Wells directed and it feels a bit out of his comfort zone. He seems unsure of how to play out the tone and pacing of the piece and which characters should be in focus.
Wells has an overall brilliant cast of actors that have been given great material to work with due to Letts’ meaty and complex screenplay. The casting of the family is important to the dynamic of this story. No matter how big or small their parts are, the majority of them are able to give strong performances and have a good familial chemistry to feel like they are all family. Julia Roberts gives one of the best performances of her career as it is stripped down and natural type of character that does not rely on her playing another gorgeous romantic lead living some glamorous life. It is quite fun to see her go up against Streep in some epic mother/daughter battles. Thank God she is finally in a good movie again. I HATED Mirror Mirror and Eat, Pray, Love. Ewan McGregor seems oddly miscast as Robert’s philandering husband. He is not a bad actor, but does not seem like the right match to be Robert’s husband. That may be the point, but I still want to believe they were a healthy couple at some point. Julianne Nicholson and Juliette Lewis are also wonderful as the two other sisters. Even though this is a strong ensemble film, there is no denying that this is Meryl Streep’s movie. She is as brilliant as ever as a vial and wretched mother who has destroyed her family. She may be showy and intense in one scene depending on Violet’s motivation and beg for sympathy in the next. Streep is always on and present and you cannot take your eyes off of her no matter how deplorable she acts towards her family. She is so unbelievable that it is quite fun watching her plays these mind games and tricks with her family. As Violet states, “Nobody slips anything by me.”
Stage to screen adaptations are very tricky no matter if they are coming from plays or musicals. The world of the piece is typically opened up, characters are added, it takes place in numerous settings, scenes and musical numbers may be cut or added. This is the third screenplay Letts has adapted from one of his plays, which helps in creating it for a new medium. The entire play takes place in the Weston house. The majority of the film takes place in the house as well, but Letts and Wells still offer us glimpses of the Oklahoma setting which is vital to Letts’ world. If you have seen the play, you might not be able to enjoy the movie as much. Letts’ darkly funny script and these strong capable actors make the film work to an extent. I just wish Wells would have pushed them a bit further and made this even more of the elevated and heightened level that it is instead of taking the more natural and realistic take on it.
RATING: ***1/2 (3.5 out of 5 stars)