A jaundiced family-reunion drama laboring under the delusion that it’s a feel-good holiday movie, the film version of August: Osage County arrives in full-on Weinstein awards-bait mode. For fans of Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play, the initial impression is likely to be that things could have been worse. True, Letts (credited as screenwriter) and director John Wells (The Company Men) have gone to pointless lengths to “open up” the action, adding trips to town and lingering on shots of dusty Oklahoma roads. The film’s cast isn’t as miraculously in-synch as the original 2007 Steppenwolf production, and the play was shorn of more than an hour, somehow losing momentum in the process. The ending has been altered semi-disastrously, in tone more than in content. Even so, the most memorable, stinging moments from the source material remain. As long as this August stays claustrophobic and “stagebound,” the film retains some of the original’s acid touch—notably in a lengthy dinner scene in which chief Gorgon Violet (Meryl Streep) upbraids the men for their relaxed dress code: “I thought we were having a funeral, not a cockfight.”
She’s wrong, at least in spirit. Letts’ play self-consciously staked a claim on the canon, nodding to—and coarsening—everything from O’Neill to Chekhov to King Lear. The suicide of patriarch Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard) brings three sisters home, where their cancer-stricken mom (Streep) pops pills and slings insults, while revelations and recriminations boil to the surface. Barbara (Julia Roberts), the eldest, initially hides news that she’s separated from her husband (Ewan McGregor). The youngest, Karen (Juliette Lewis), is about to marry a lothario (Dermot Mulroney) who has designs on Barbara’s underage daughter (Abigail Breslin). The dead man’s brother and sister-in-law (Chris Cooper and Margo Martindale) argue over their disappointment in their son (Benedict Cumberbatch), who’s hapless enough to miss the funeral. Throw in some weed and a lengthy debate about whether it’s possible to taste animals’ fear, and it should be clear that even a defanged adaptation could only fuck up this material so much.
Still, Wells’ heavy-handed direction and a bizarrely sappy score by Gustavo Santaolalla flatten much of the humor and spikiness; the pace seems to slow just as the no-exit tension should kick in. (Both the length and single set were crucial to the stage version’s effect.) The cast is a mixed bag: The role of the dying, hectoring materfamilias is a gimme for Streep, while Roberts, though adequate, can’t match the volatility or complexity Amy Morton brought to the role. Julianne Nicholson is quietly sublime as Ivy, the middle sister, who never left home and has the purest motives of anyone—a state that leaves her vulnerable to the biggest punishment.
Comparisons may seem unfair, but they also don’t flatter this August: Osage County, and judging it any other way is akin to grading on a curve. Letts’ opus always played as if it had been consciously designed to be a staple of American theater; especially on second viewing, the film’s inadequacy as a record of that—as the means by which future generations will come to August—seems apparent. It’s not so much a mangled movie as it is an unfulfilled, forgettable one: unnecessary for anyone who’s seen the play, yet sufficiently watered-down that newcomers won’t be able to tell what all the fuss was about.