Director John Wells tries to navigate a star-laden film adaptation of the hit Chicago play, August: Osage County, with dismal results.
The hit 2007 Steppenwolf Theatre Chicago production of August: Osage County was an actor’s wet dream. Filled to the brim with talent, juicy characters, flashy vulgar dialogue, and the kind of dramatic scenes performers salivate over, it also highlighted the talents of longtime Chicago playwright and actor Tracy Letts. The critics gushed over it, audiences flocked to it, and Broadway producers became intrigued. It wasn’t long until the entire original production was transported to the Great White Way where it went on to commercial success, rave reviews, several Tony Awards, and a Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It should be of no surprise that only a few years later, we now have a star-studded Hollywood adaptation up on the screen courtesy of The Weinstein Company. The likes of Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Sam Shepard, Chris Cooper, Juliet Lewis, Benedict Cumberbatch, Abigail Breslin, and Ewan McGregor all occupy this awards-baiting production. No doubt Harvey Weinstein himself couldn’t resist the thought of a high-profile cast tearing across the screen, bringing with them a heavy boatload of golden trophies. And that is exactly what is wrong with the picture – every step of the way the film screams “Look at me, look at this cast, this is important!” without ever settling into its story or characters. It is laid out in large, broad strokes, losing whatever subtleties the play may have had — and while there is certainly a lot of “ACTING” going on, it all leads to an empty film with little to no directorial vision.
August: Osage County tells the story of Violet Weston and her three daughters, Barbara, Ivy, and Karen, who come together at their childhood home in Pawhuska, Oklahoma after their alcoholic father’s suicide. Violet is a pill-popping, venom-spitting snake who takes great pleasure in tearing into the faults of her daughters while ignoring her own. The daughters all have their issues, with Barbara going through a separation with her husband, Ivy being the only daughter who stayed close to home (and who has fallen in love with her first cousin, Little Charles), and Karen running through man after man living in a deluded fantasy state. Throughout the course of the narrative many family secrets are revealed, old wounds re-opened, and darkly comic dramatic hijinks take place with lots and lots of screaming involved.
The acting throughout the picture is wildly uneven with many of the performers seemingly left to their own devices. Meryl Streep is without question one of the greatest actresses who has ever lived, but must she always be the de facto choice for a celebrated female part over the age of 50? Streep is consistently the most committed performer in any piece she is in and while she certainly goes all the way with her depiction of Violet, the result is a grotesque caricature. On paper Violet is a towering figure, and the desire to chew up the scenery is understandable, but Streep makes every obvious choice and plays up the extremes of her drug addiction, while missing many of the nuances of the character. Streep is always better when she underplays and goes for the more internal interpretation as evidenced by her work in Sophie’s Choice and, to a larger extent, her “against type” work in The Devil Wears Prada. Miranda Priestly could have easily been an over-the-top monster, but Streep decided to go the opposite direction and because of that it’s a disturbingly funny and ultimately tragic comic performance. But that isn’t what she does here, and as a result it’s a performance on a level equal to her embarrassing Oscar-winning turn in The Iron Lady. It’s a missed opportunity for the legendary actress.
Julia Roberts is better than she has been in a while as the unnerved Barbara, but she results to many of the same histrionics as Streep. Lewis is affable as Karen, but she isn’t given much to do except wax-poetic about her sham engagement to a three-time divorcée. Julianne Nicholson shows a lot of restraint as Ivy, but her wounded puppy routine becomes tiresome by the time her big scene arrives. Fairing much better are the men of the picture. Sam Shepard shows up in a brief scene at the beginning of the film as Beverly Weston, husband to Violet, and is able to say more about their misguided marriage with a few lines and a couple somber looks than Streep is able to do through all of her acting convulsions. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Little Charles, whose simple-minded goodness is one of the few bright spots in a cast of loathsome characters. Chris Cooper plays his father, Charlie, and he nearly steals the film out from everyone. He is the one character who talks sense in the family and the one actor who doesn’t result to shouting in order to be heard over everyone else’s line vomiting. The performance is a great reminder, amidst a sea of showboating, that sometimes it’s what you don’t do that registers the most on screen.
Director John Wells cut his teeth in television — writing, directing, and producing for shows such as ER and The West Wing — but he only has one other feature film to his credit: The Company Men, which wasn’t exactly a commercial or critical success. With his background working with TV ensembles, it’s easy to see why the powers that be decided he might be a good fit for the material. Unfortunately, Wells lets his cast run all over him, with no tone or course to adhere to. He is at the whim of power-hungry stars looking to add that next statue to their mantle. He also seems to have little interest in the material, making no personal directorial stamp on the piece at all. August: Osage County needed a Mike Nichols or (if he was still alive) Robert Altman, someone who understood the theatricality of the piece, but could also control his ensemble while transforming the stage production into a truly cinematic experience. There is nothing inherently wrong with Tracy Letts’s script adaptation of his play, but with more than an hour of material cut from the original text it’s hard not to feel like a lot of character and plot development is missing.
August: Osage County should have been produced as a small independent feature with an established star, or two, with up-and-comers filling out the rest of the cast. Better yet, why not use the original Steppenwolf cast, who helped make the show such a hit to begin with? Instead, the Weinsteins have graced us with a would-be prestige picture filled with big names, lots of money, a sophomore film director with nowhere to go, and performances stuck in egomaniacal acting overdrive.