★ ★ ★ out of a possible 5
There’s a lot to like about August: Osage County, unfortunately there’s a fair amount not to like as well.
The film is an adaptation of Tracy Letts‘ Pulitzer Prize winning play of the same name, which began it’s life at Chicago’s famed Steppenwolf Theater in 2007 before moving on to play 648 performances on Broadway and winning five Tony Awards in 2008, including Best Play. On stage August: Osage County had an average running time of over 3 hours, the film comes in just under 2, and this, to the surprise of no one, is where the real problems begin. The screenplay for the film, which Letts adapted from his play, is essentially a truncated version of his award winning theatrical triumph and, as a result, feels more than a little thin. Those who are familiar with the play will be surprised by the film’s lack of depth, while those who have no point of reference will have a nagging feeling something is missing and, make no mistake, it most definitely is. Oh, to be a fly on the wall during those screenplay debates between Letts, Wells and the producing team, it couldn’t have been pretty.
Sisters Barbara, Karen, and Ivy Weston (Julia Roberts, Juliette Lewis, and Julianne Nicholson) are called back home when their father, Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard), goes missing. They have kept their distance from their mother Violet (Meryl Streep) because she has become addicted to pills and loaded up on prescriptions after getting mouth cancer. The entire family gather for an awkward reunion, led by the high and brutally honest Violet who claims she is just “truth telling“. Eventually, we learn of the sisters’ back-stories: Barbara and her husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) are going through a divorce, Karen barely keeps in contact with the others and devotes most of her time to a fantasy future with her fiancé Steve (Dermot Mulroney) , and Ivy falls in love with her cousin, “Little” Charles Aiken (Benedict Cumberbatch), which becomes even more controversial when buried secrets finally come to light. Yes, it is a tangled web the Weston’s have woven for themselves and, at times, downright hilarious thanks to Tracy Letts’ brilliant and twisted mind.
Given the all-star pedigree of the cast and the award winning success of the source material, the film’s failures fall squarely on the shoulders of director John Wells, who has a much longer history as a producer than he does a director. Wells has only one other feature film to his credit, (2010’s The Company Men, yet another film that misses as much as it hits), and a minimal track record in episodic television. Which begs the question; how does someone with such a seemingly thin resume- as a film director- get the chance to helm a big screen adaptation of a Pulitzer Prize winning play starring Hollywood’s biggest actresses? As is often the case, the clues live in the credits. The lead producer of August: Osage County is actor/director/producer George Clooney, (who incidentally took home an Oscar last year for producing the Best Picture winner, Argo), Wells’ biggest credit to date is that of executive producer on all 329 episodes of the television drama ER, which, of course, put Clooney on the map. So, payback, friendship, showbiz nepotism? At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that in the hands of a more capable director, such as James L. Brooks (Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News), Mike Nichols (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Graduate, Closer) or even Jason Reitman, who directed Clooney to great acclaim with Up in the Air in 2009, the film wouldn’t just be good, it would be great and, without question, a much better bet for Oscar contention.
The film definitely has it’s highlights; Chris Cooper, as Violet’s brother in law, a reasonable man trapped in an unreasonable world is a stand out. In Cooper’s hands, Charlie Aiken is the most patient, kind and intelligent guy in the room, until his patience finally gives way to the suppressed emotions he’s been holding back for decades. It’s the best work Cooper has done on film since American Beauty in 1999 and, if any performance in this film is worthy of the Academy’s attention, it’s his.
At times the film seems to be a bit of a competition between two Oscar winning actresses, both considered the best of their generation. It’s a team-up I suppose many film fans have been waiting for but, in the case of this movie, the match up is distracting at best. Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts take turns, from scene to scene, seemingly trying to top each other performances. I don’t believe this was really either of their intentions but, nevertheless, that’s how it all comes off. When you combine the roles as written with the sheer star power of both actresses it’s clear a better director would have been required to keep that unsavory element out of the mix. This battle of the thespians is most obvious at the end of the film, when it’s clear the final moment before the credits roll really should belong to Streep’s Violet but a quiet epilog is tacked on to remind us all that Roberts is a movie star. That moment adds nothing to the story and actually weakens the final breath in the sad and funny tale of the Weston clan. Did Letts actually come to write that final moment out of pressure he received from Roberts, her agent, manager or producers or, did the director simply make an executive decision himself and throw it in there? We’ll never know and, again, it doesn’t really matter. What does matter is the moment feels contrived and forced by the heavy hand of either a studio or movie star and carries the stench of commerce trumping art.
I’m recommending you see the film albeit with tentative reservations and, if you do, please remember, should the opportunity ever arise where you actually have a chance to see the play August: Osage County on stage, don’t shrug your shoulders and say, “I’ve already seen that one, with Meryl Streep & Julia Roberts…” because you really haven’t. At the end of the day, all you will have seen is a Cliff’s Notes version of one of the greatest American plays to be written in the last several decades.
Scott Hopkins, popbitez.net