August: Osage County is a complicated tale
Starring Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts. Rated 14A.
The three hours of August: Osage County, Tracy Letts’s Pulitzer Prize–winning play, have been squeezed into two. The results, adapted by Letts and director John Wells, constitute an angry outcry about America in decline repackaged as mildly amusing Oscar bait. To judge by the film’s trailers, in fact, you’d expect a bad-taste comedy when it’s more like Danish chamber drama with southern accents.
Meryl Streep heads the cast as pill-popping matriarch Violet, expert at bullying the Oklahoma clan that gathers when her husband suddenly vanishes. An alcohol-addled poet ambiguously named Beverly, her missing mate turns out to be Sam Shepard, whose own plays touch upon similarly windblown rural decay and family intrigue. (The author’s father, Dennis Letts, played Beverly in the original Broadway run.)
The crisis leads to a sudden visit from Violet’s bossy sister (Margo Martindale), her husband (a wonderfully restrained Chris Cooper), and their socially awkward son (Benedict Cumberbatch, believe it or don’t). Also on hand are Violet’s three daughters: family helpmate Ivy (Julianne Nicholson); flighty Karen (Juliette Lewis), with her latest creepy boyfriend (Dermot Mulroney) in tow; and long-resentful Barbara (Julia Roberts), currently going through a meltdown with her distracted husband (Ewan McGregor, hobbled by a placeless American dialect) and trouble-seeking daughter (Little Miss Sunshine herself, Abigail Breslin).
I’m somewhat surprised that Roberts does the most memorable acting here—or at least that which is best scaled to the intimate obligations of cinema. Wells, who previously directed The Company Men and much episodic TV, is clearly in over his head, bringing almost no visual ingenuity to the chatter, largely trapped inside the tale’s run-down Addams Family house.
A few scenes venturing into Oklahoma’s open plains have a mysterious power missing from the stagy dialogue, which refers to the physical environment but feels oddly disembodied. (The characters frequently complain about summer heat but there’s no sweat in sight.) The tale is further complicated by introducing a Native American woman (Misty Upham) as the family housekeeper and giving her almost nothing to say. Pulitzer or not, what playwright doesn’t know that a Greek chorus is supposed to sing?