It’s undeniable that, at least on paper, “August: Osage County” looks like a can’t-miss proposition. Pairing Tracey Letts‘ Pulitizer Prize and Tony Award-winning play with an outstanding ensemble cast ranging from awards-nominated veterans to rising young stars—Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Abigail Breslin, Benedict Cumberbatch, Juliette Lewis, Margo Martindale, Dermot Mulroney, Julianne Nicholson, Sam Shepard, Misty Upham—it’s hard to fathom the material not working. And while the choice of helmer John Wells (“The Company Men“) might not seem like the most inspired decision, all he theoretically has to do is put the camera on a tripod and let the actors do their thing. And he does. And yet, ‘Osage County’ still turns out be an exhausting, screechy drama, in which a lot of very good actors work very hard, and yet produce so little as a result.
Following the death of family patriarch and celebrated poet Beverly Weston (Shepard, in an appearance that’s just slightly more than a cameo), the entire brood returns to the titular home to rally around their mother Violet (Streep), a cancer-battling, pill-popping woman. Arriving from near and far are Violet’s daughters Barbara, Karen and Ivy (Roberts, Lewis and Nicholson); her sister Mattie Fae (Martindale), her husband Charles (Cooper) and their son “Little” Charles (Cumberbatch); as well as Barbara’s estranged husband Bill (McGregor) and their daughter Jean (Breslin) and Karen’s new fiancé Steve (Mulroney). And as major family events like births, marriages and funerals tend to unveil, there’s a lot history to discuss, catch up with and reconcile, and over the next few weeks it will all come out in mostly painful and harsh showdowns.
Violet in particular seems to have an unending reserve of bitter, acidic observations and opinions to rain down on everyone she knows, and she doesn’t waste much time in getting down to business. At a family dinner after Beverly’s funeral is when the gloves first come off, in an extended scene where nearly everyone has a sharp spear of insult or indignation hurled straight at them. The Westons are hardly the Waltons, and it soon becomes clear that is just the tip of an iceberg of meanness and cruelty. The dinner is just the first layer of an onion of secrets, regrets, revelations and accusations that are yet to come, and while we have no doubt Letts’ original material won awards and critical acclaim for good reason, the translation to the big screen leaves much to be desired.
While seeing this on stage in a series of clearly defined acts likely gives the the story a different shape, presented similarly as a film, it leaves the pacing feeling particularly slack. Letts’ work contains frequent verbal bouts, and showdowns between various characters, but the staginess of the movie—particular in scenes that get stuck in one room for minutes upon minutes on end with different people shouting at each other—can be tiring, and certainly visually lifeless. Granted, we’re not watching ‘Osage’ for camera movements and slick sequences, and though the screenplay by Letts’ himself does open things up slightly, it doesn’t do enough inside the Weston home to knock down some walls have give both these characters and the audience room to breathe.
And sure, one could justify that choice as a metaphorical one, emphasizing the claustrophobia of the entire situation, but this a film that requires performances to carry what the isn’t in the (endless) scenes of dense dialogue. But sadly, for most of the cast, yelling every line loudly is confused with conveying emotion, sarcasm and/or depth, with several zingers completely missing the mark because any shaping of the lines is erased by sheer volume. “August: Osage County” is a film of big, wild gestures, plate smashing, screaming and tears, but not nuance, and it all has the effect of leaving one deadened, not moved. None of these characters are sympathetic, nor should they be, but we aren’t given a reason to personally invest, relate or even understand the depth of betrayals and bad behavior that has stacked up over the years. These are clearly people who don’t like being together, but yet the movie doesn’t give the audience a reason to want to be with them either.
But there are some saving grace notes throughout. Streep is at her Streep-iest, given a wig to wear, and allowed to look ugly, and she takes to sneering, emotionally volatile Violet with ease. She commands the screen and many scenes like she should, but has a great foil in Roberts playing Barbara. As the eldest daughter, who has to come to grips with her family history, as well as take the unwanted role of Weston matriarch, Roberts hasn’t been this good in a while, and that’s likely due to a role that gives her a lot of substance to play with. And a special nod of recognition has to go to Cooper as Charles, who delivers one of the film’s few genuine moments, with a wonderful, poignant rebuke of his wife Mattie that lays bare the ugliness at the core of the Westons.
As directed by Wells, he seems to have been almost too hands-off when it comes to his heavyweight cast. There is little in the way of craftmanship here—even the usually-reliable composer Gustavo Santalalla provides a rather workmanlike score—and the film could’ve used a stronger hand in guiding the transition of the play to the big screen. There is a powerful cinematic experience somewhere in “August: Osage County” waiting to get out in the sprawling two hour plus runtime, but in seemingly staying too faithful to Letts’ work, the end product winds up playing almost like a supercut of Important Acting In Big Scenes, instead of a cohesive work of dramatic weight and thematic thoughtfulness. [C-]