Film Evaluation: ‘August: Osage County,’ With Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts

December 26th, 2013

Claire Folger/Weinstein Company

From left, Julianne Nicholson, Meryl Streep and Margo Martindale in “August: Osage County.”

Sam Shepard kicks off the screen adaptation of “August: Osage County” with a foggy reference to T. S. Eliot and a succinct account of some of the family pathology that will occupy his kin (and the audience) for the next couple of hours. “My wife takes pills,” he says, “and I drink.” Mr. Shepard is Beverly Weston, a poet living in a big, faded farmhouse in northeastern Oklahoma. Beverly’s wife, Violet, soon makes her wobbly, cackling entrance in the person of Meryl Streep. She takes pills. He drinks. And then Mr. Shepard quits the scene. You will miss him. You might also envy him.

Beverly’s disappearance sets in motion an especially loud and rambunctious variation on a tried-and-true theme. You’ve seen it before, in plays and indie movies and holiday episodes of your favorite televisions shows. An extended clan descends on the old home place to bicker, reminisce, air long-hidden secrets and smash a few dinner plates. Tears are shed, lessons learned, award nominations eagerly solicited.

In addition to the pills and booze already noted, the menu at this particular feast of dysfunction includes adultery, divorce and incest. But the story of the Weston family — Beverly and Violet’s three daughters and their various menfolk, as well as Violet’s sister and brother-in-law — is secondary to the spectacle the actors make of themselves. Really, “acting” is an inadequate word for what the cast of this movie is doing. Maybe, in honor of one of the leading industries in the Sooner State, we should call it “fracting.” The application of enormous pressure is involved, a great quantity of subterranean gas is forced to the surface, and the environmental consequences are likely to be controversial.

Another way to think of “August: Osage County,” which was directed by John Wells and adapted by Tracy Letts from his own play, is as a thespian cage match. Within a circumscribed space, a bunch of unquestionably talented performers is assembled with no instructions other than to top one another. One twitchy confession must be excelled by another. The same with smoldering, sarcastic speeches, explosions of tears, wistful jags of nostalgia and imperious gazes of disgust.

It goes without saying that nobody can beat Ms. Streep at this game. Remember Amy Adams in “Julie and Julia”? Anne Hathaway in “The Devil Wears Prada”? Anyone at all in “The Iron Lady”? Of course not. Here Ms. Streep smokes, rants, bites her fingers, slurs her speech and spews obscenities with the gusto of a tornado laying waste to a small town. Julia Roberts, playing Barbara, Beverly’s favorite daughter and therefore Violet’s rival, tries to hold her own by refusing to smile. She also slaps a face and breaks a plate. It’s hardly a fair contest.

But everyone joins in. Ewan McGregor, as Barbara’s half-estranged husband, affects a pained smile. Abigail Breslin, as their teenage daughter, Jean, pouts and seethes. Juliette Lewis and Dermot Mulroney, as Barbara’s sister Karen and her sleazy new fianc?, stop in from another, much more entertaining, movie, one full of sex and danger and naughtiness. As the last sister, Ivy, Julianne Nicholson looks miserable. Benedict Cumberbatch, as a delicate cousin known as Little Charles, blinks his eyes and struggles with his accent. Some of them also break plates. The only people who look at all at ease — and who are genuinely pleasant to watch — are Margot Martindale and Chris Cooper, as Little Charles’s parents, Mattie Fae and Charles.

“August: Osage County” falls into an uncanny valley between melodrama and camp, failing to achieve either heights of operatic feeling or flights of knowing parody. The jokes are too labored, too serious. The serious moments tilt toward the preposterous, above all a climactic revelation that seems, on sober examination, to be more of a technical detail than a seismic explosion.

I never saw Mr. Letts’s play onstage, so I will defer to the judgment of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize jury and my theatergoing brethren in the critical profession. It is possible that Mr. Wells has simply mishandled the material, riding roughshod over subtleties and muffling bravura moments. But it also may be that the awkward transition from stage to screen has exposed weak spots in Mr. Letts’s dramatic architecture and bald spots in his writing. The movie is a quilt stitched together from borrowed scraps of the American theatrical canon — a panel of Eugene O’Neill, some bright threads of Tennessee Williams, ribbons of Beth Henley — without much fresh insight into family relations, human psychology or life on the Plains.

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