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August: Osage County

August: Osage County

Asked what it was like to have to trim almost half of his
play’s running time for a screen adaptation, Tracy Letts replied, “It was
excruciating.” I can only imagine, as some characters clearly get short shrift
in this condensation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning show. Yet as a showcase for
a host of gifted actors, it remains potent and entertaining.

Watching Meryl Streep is always a joy, I daresay a
privilege. She tears into a juicy role as matriarch of a deeply troubled
Oklahoma family. The death of her husband (Sam Shepard) brings far-flung
siblings and children back to their homestead for the funeral and its
aftermath. Over the course of a few days, and especially over the dinner table,
old wounds are reopened, long-held resentments aired anew, and layer by layer,
we discover the ugly skeletons in this family’s closet. When the air clears,
it’s up to the individuals to decide what they should do next.

The cast couldn’t be better, and each one gets a chance to
shine—some more consistently than others. Julia Roberts is quite good as the
daughter who stands up to her mother. Margo Martindale is wonderful (as always)
as Streep’s earthy sister, and Chris Cooper equally shines as Martindale’s
husband. Juliette Lewis and Julianne Nicholson have sterling moments as
Roberts’ sisters, while Dermot Mulroney and Ewan McGregor do yeoman service as
men who married into the dysfunctional clan. Abigail Breslin and Misty Upham
make the most of their relatively minor roles. I’m not sure Benedict Cumberbatch’s
role, as Martindale and Cooper’s callow son, was worth the time it took for him
to fly from London to Oklahoma, but he does as fine a job as one would expect.

Director John Wells takes a straightforward approach to this
sprawling material and allows us to be spectators, taking in the dirty laundry
one piece at a time. For a film that relies so much on dialogue, it flows
surprisingly well.

Yet as good as it is, this movie made me want to see the
four-hour play; I’m sorrier than ever that I missed it on Broadway and in Los
Angeles. Given the exigencies of mainstream moviemaking, Letts and Wells
decided to focus on the two dominant female characters played by Streep and
Roberts. That’s a reasonable trade-off, but I couldn’t help thinking there had
to be more to the male characters than is revealed in this screenplay. As a
moviegoer, I shouldn’t be thinking about what’s missing.

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