I need to say this right off the bat: I haven’t seen Tracy Letts’ play August: Osage County on stage. I’ve heard that the play, which won every major prize available to it in 2007, boasts a level of story and character detail that the current, star-studded movie version does not. This I can easily believe. I’ve also observed theater people freaking out over the change that the movie (scripted by Letts himself) makes to the ending. This strikes me as an overreaction to an incredibly small tweak. What I’m sure of is that, having gone into the movie cold, I came out thinking it was a slapdash work but an effective showpiece for its actors.
The film takes place at the large home of Violet Weston (Meryl Streep) in the wilds of Oklahoma. After the disappearance of her professor husband (Sam Shepard), Violet gathers her three grown daughters (Julia Roberts, Julianne Nicholson, and Juliette Lewis), her sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale), and sundry significant others and children. Dying of oral cancer, Violet still smokes compulsively and pops pain pills like candy. The highs she gets off those don’t prevent her from verbally assaulting everyone who comes within reach. To her daughters: “You girls had a college education given to you practically for free, taken for granted, no doubt. What do you do? If you’d worked as hard as I have, you’d all be president by now.”
Director John Wells comes from a TV background, having shepherded ER and The West Wing as a producer, as well as directing several episodes of the former. Alas, he fulfills the increasingly outdated stereotype of TV directors being visually unimaginative. The individual scenes work well enough on their own, but they don’t flow into each other, which gives the film an uneasy start-and-stop rhythm.
Streep is in full dragon-lady mode here, and while she doesn’t radically depart from the similar roles she has played in the past (Doubt, The Devil Wears Prada, The Manchurian Candidate), she does dominate the proceedings the way the part demands. The real brilliance comes from the other actors, as the Westons orient themselves around the monstrous Violet. Roberts smartly underplays as the eldest daughter who keeps a lid on her simmering rage until Violet’s steady stream of abuse finally makes her physically attack her over the dinner table. As Mattie Fae’s redneck husband, Chris Cooper conveys the inner decency that lets him come through this hellish family reunion relatively unscathed, as well as making some comic hay out of a long-winded pre-dinner prayer. He’s partnered well by the redoubtable Martindale as a woman with an earthy sense of humor who’s harboring her own secrets. Nicholson, too, shines brightly as a middle sister who’s spent her whole life being overlooked. Prestige projects like this one frequently throw lots of good actors into the mix and do nothing else. It’s fortunate for August: Osage County that this strategy works as well as it does.
August: Osage County
Starring Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts. Directed by John Wells. Written by Tracy Letts, based on his own play. Rated PG-13.