Film Review: August: Osage County
Oscar-striving performances can’t save a so-so script
Published: January 8, 2014
August: Osage County
Directed by John Wells
Opens Jan. 10 at the Charles Theatre
Meryl Streep is sometimes unfairly labeled as an actress who’s all technique and no heart. Over the years, however, she’s been tremendously moving in movies as different as Silkwood, Sophie’s Choice, and Adaptation. But when a script gives her little heart to work with, her loaded arsenal of technique becomes inescapably obvious.
That’s what happens in August: Osage County, a soap opera dressed up in literary pretensions. A lot happens on the Oklahoma prairie during the few weeks covered by the story; long-buried family resentments and secrets burst into the open at regular intervals during a patriarch’s funeral and its aftermath. But it’s all incident without insight. None of the revelations change the lives of the characters. How could they change when they’re all too damaged and bitter—and too poorly imagined—to do anything but repeat the patterns they’re already in?
That was true when Tracy Letts’ play was here in Baltimore at the Everyman Theatre a year ago. And it’s even more true now that Letts’ truncated screenplay is coming to Baltimore movie theaters. So what can Streep do but try to fill in the story’s emptiness with the tricks of her trade?
Her character, Violet, looks like a scarecrow when she first appears, bursting into the office of her husband, the alcoholic poet Beverly (Sam Shepard). Her short, thinning gray hair is sticking out in all directions; her red-rimmed eyes swim in a wrinkled, powdered face. Violet’s a pill addict, and Streep’s manic giggles and stumbling gait communicate that brilliantly.
The actress thoroughly convinces us that we’re watching a 65-year-old pillhead in an Oklahoma farmhouse. But neither she nor Letts gives us any reason to care. We can admire the verisimilitude of the performance from a safe distance because we’re never convinced that it has anything to do with us.
Julia Roberts shows up at the funeral as Violet’s eldest daughter, Barbara, who angrily denies that she’s becoming more and more like her manipulative, domineering mother, though Letts’ heavy-handed irony makes it clear that she is. Roberts is a gifted comic actress but not much of a dramatic one. She tries and tries to make us dislike Barbara, but the performer’s radiant beauty and charm defeat her own efforts.
While the casseroles are ladled out onto antique china for the post-funeral dinner, the nastiness begins to rear its head. Violet, now wearing a dark wig, inquires cruelly into Barbara’s marital problems while Barbara’s husband (Ewan McGregor) and 14-year-old daughter (Abigail Breslin) are sitting right at the table. Barbara retaliates by trying to snatch away Violet’s pills, and the two women end up wrestling on the floor.
Streep and Roberts aren’t the only ones in this star-studded cast trying their damnedest to win Oscar nominations. Juliette Lewis overdoes the kewpie doll aspects of Karen, the youngest daughter, who has brought home yet another sleazy boyfriend (Dermot Mulroney) to the funeral. Benedict Cumberbatch does his best Dustin Hoffman Rain Man imitation as the socially inept “Little” Charles, Violet’s nephew. Margo Martindale lays on the hillbilly stereotypes as Violet’s overweight sister, Mattie Fae.
Amid all this scenery chewing, the few understated performances are welcome harbors in a turbulent sea. Julianne Nicholson gives Violet’s middle daughter, Ivy, a quiet dignity as she hides a secret love and plots a long-delayed escape from the farmhouse. Best of all is Chris Cooper as Charles, whose aw-shucks demeanor sets up the picture’s best scene, when he finally breaks loose with an ultimatum to Mattie Fae, his wife.
In adapting his own play for the screen, Letts condensed the dialogue. That may have been necessary, but his choices were unfortunate. The roles of Johnna (Misty Upham), the family’s American-Indian maid, and of the local sheriff (Will Coffey), also Barbara’s ex-boyfriend, are greatly diminished, thus negating the only two outsider perspectives on the family. A lot of the humor is lost in the transition as well.
The reduced script allows director John Wells to “open up” the housebound play. He does this in the least imaginative ways possible. The all-too-brief shots of the Oklahoma landscape resemble calendar art and visitor-center brochures more than the Western photography of Paul Strand or Ansel Adams. The trips to the death scene or to the store in town seem like unwelcome errands to be completed as quickly as possible.
If you’re going to assemble such talented actors to adapt a contemporary stage play to the screen, why waste them on such a sudsy story? Why not take on one of our era’s best playwrights, such as Edward Albee, Brian Friel, Conor McPherson, Martin McDonagh, or Donald Margulies? Why not use Sam Shepard as the writer rather than as a supporting actor?
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