Director: John Wells
Writer: Tracy Letts
Cast: Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Abigail Breslin, Benedict Cumberbatch, Juliette Lewis, Margo Martindale, Dermot Mulroney, Julianne Nicholson, Sam Shepard, Misty Upham.
I think someone forgot to tell all the people involved that August: Osage County was supposed to be a dark comedy because, boy, does everyone take themselves so seriously in this clunky adaptation of the stage play by the same name. Even though the playwright adapted his own script for the screen (yes, Tracy Letts is a man), he seems to have lost any of that tongue and cheek tone and drama with a wink that won his play multiple Tonys and a slew of other awards a few years ago. That said, he did lose several fights while trying to get this film made, such as a request to use the same cast as the Broadway version or at the very least a desire that the cast be made up completely of American nationals. Neither of these wishes was granted. Letts did eventually say he was happy with the end result, but I wouldn’t really concur. While there is some very good acting in the film, without the humor that was so needed to keep the audience involved, the movie is an over the top mess full of dramatic twists even people who love soap operas will think the plot to be excessive.
When the family patriarch of the Weston clan, Beverly (Sam Shepard), goes missing, his wife Violet (Meryl Streep) calls out to her scattered daughters to come home. Once it is discovered that the man committed suicide the entire family united for the first time in years under the same roof. That family comprises oldest daughter Barbara (Julia Roberts) who brings in tow her estranged husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) and teenage daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin). Violet’s long suffering middle daughter Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) is the only one who stuck around in Oklahoma and never left her hometown. Youngest daughter, the free spirited Karen (Juliette Lewis), roars into town with her suspicious fiancé Steve (Dermot Mulroney). Also present are Violet’s sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale) and her husband Charles (Chris Cooper) and their mess-up of a son Little Charlie (Benedict Cumberbatch). Keeping a watchful eye on the entire clan is the quiet and observant Johnna (Misty Upham), a Native American live-in nurse/maid whom Beverly had hired just prior to his suicide.
The minute the entire family is under the same roof scandals, secrets, grudges, and discords arise and proceed to make the already very hot temperature in the home boil over into a disaster area in which nobody emerges unscathed. Violet, spurred on by her mouth cancer diagnosis and prescription pill addiction, is incapable of holding back venomous barbs and cutting remarks, which are thrown in every direction and each time land with the most serrated of cuts. Everyone in the house is someone’s intended victim, nobody comes off as truly innocent, with the exception maybe of Ivy and Little Charlie, whose storyline is the most tragic yet incredible at the same time.
Because everything is played straight and for dramatic effect the audience doesn’t know what to believe or where to hold onto. The twists just keep coming and the devastation is just much too much. By the end of the film each new discovery begins to land on deaf ears because by that point the viewer has had enough of this overly self indulgent and despicable family of monsters. Streep and Roberts are excellent and expertly trade barbs with ease. Some of the other cast members seem out of place and are just incongruous. Martindale is reliable and always great to see in anything (I recently saw her walking her dog on the sidewalk in New York, so I mean it literally when I say that she is great to see absolutely anywhere). I was impressed with Upham, whose untimely death last year was tragic, she did very well playing off of the much more famous cast around her and really held her own, especially opposite Streep.
Families can be really dysfunctional and its members know how to hurt each other better than any outsider ever will. But a family this destructive and self sabotaging might be better left behind closed doors.