In the all-star movie adaptation of August: Osage County, another play that holds the stage with fang and claw feels less momentous onscreen. The playwright, Tracy Letts, writes good, deceptively mundane dialogue — until the mundaneness quickly mushrooms into madness. Killer Joe ends with carnage, Bug with conflagration. Osage is Letts’s family play, his home-for-the-holidays play, his Pulitzer-Prize-winning Broadway crowd-pleaser. The madness is domesticated, the eviscerations psychological. The damage has already been done: All that remains is for family members to rip off one another’s scabs. The production was a treat on Broadway, although not everyone fell for it. After the curtain came down on the bravura funeral dinner that ended with a mother and daughter shrieking at each other and wrestling on the floor over a bottle of pills, I exclaimed to my wife, “That’s one of the great dinner scenes of all time!” and an older gentleman in back of me declared, “No, it’s not,” and walked away. Letts does write a mite broadly for some people, but I like him.
The movie is a big, square, often entertaining adaptation that’s sure to score a raft of Oscar nominations, if that’s your thing. Meryl Streep does nothing small as the pill-popping Oklahoma fount of bile Violet Weston, and three Julies — Julia Roberts, Julianne Nicholson, and Juliette Lewis — are a picturesque trio of daughters, each of whom has coped with her mother’s monstrousness in a different way. One has stayed close and dependent, one has moved away but is still emotionally connected (and seething), and one has emancipated herself completely. Roberts plays the seething one, Barbara. Her resentment toward her mother bleeds through her pores.
The family (which includes spouses, boyfriends, and a teenage daughter) has assembled on the Weston farm after the patriarch (Sam Shepard) — a well-known poet and an alcoholic — walks out the door and isn’t heard from again. It seems likely he has decided to end it all, and when we meet his wife we understand why.
August: Osage County has no subtext to speak of; it’s all bellowed into your face. On Broadway, its Chicago actors knew how to modulate their performances and together build the tension, beat by beat. (Last year, Letts himself gave a master class in modulation as George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) But director John Wells fractures the action, jumping back and forth between stars in close-up yelling at one another in the style of a more profane Steel Magnolias. In stage adaptations, I prefer direction that’s less on-the-nose and more keyed to the ensemble, to the movement of actors in relation to one another in wider shots. I enjoyed much of it, but I could hear that old man in back of me saying, “No it’s not,” and I wondered if he’d been right. Wells dotes on his actors so much that he exposes the play’s contrivances.
There are excellent moments. Sam Shepard has many of them early on: He knows how to underplay material like this onscreen (probably from seeing how badly his own plays translated). But he’s gone in no time. Margo Martindale makes a grand entrance as Violet’s sister, directing her husband to smell the sweat coming off her meaty arms, and Chris Cooper as her husband laughs affectionately and cracks a beer. Later, Cooper has a moment when he stares at Martindale, hollow-eyed, and says, “I don’t understand this meanness,” that’s heart-rending. He’s defending his hapless, introvert son, played by Benedict Cumberbatch in a piece of stunt casting that doesn’t work. Cumberbatch has too much will to tamp himself down for this boy-man, and his supposed romantic relationship with Nicholson’s Ivy — his cousin — doesn’t click. He doesn’t embrace her with enough need.
Streep is affecting when she appears in several scenes sans wig, holding a cigarette in her bony twisted fingers and slurring her words, drawn and frail and beaten down by cancer and addiction. But when she puts on that fake do, she turns into a camp harridan, playing to the balcony. Letts hates this woman so much he gives her no aspect of grace, and Streep doesn’t rise above the conception.
Surprisingly, Julia Roberts does better. On Broadway back in 2006 in Three Days of Rain, she had zero in the way of histrionic resources. She was stiff, thin-voiced, monotonous. But she’s a master of the close-up. She’s shrewd. She holds your eyes. But does she get all of Barbara? A few years ago, David Letterman asked Roberts on his show whether there were any co-stars she felt were especially unpleasant, and, silly me, I waited for her to say something like, “Well, I’m no picnic myself.” She didn’t — she told a story about an unnamed bad boy who I’m pretty sure was Nick Nolte. Her lack of irony was striking. She can play anger, resentment, insecurity, triumph, and narcissistic abandon. But not self-hatred. She doesn’t show how Barbara turns her rage against her mother on herself, which would have given the character another dimension. But I loved her mini-speech to her daughter (Abigail Breslin) when she’s waiting to hear if her father is dead: “Die after me, all right? I don’t care what else you do, where you go, how you screw up your life. Just survive. Please.” That’s what someone might say to a child on the sudden death of a parent, when the foundations of one’s life crumble.
I almost forgot that Ewan McGregor was in the movie as Barbara’s cipher of a husband, and Dermot Mulroney barely registers as the skeezy fiancé of Charlotte (Lewis). To provide a baseline of sanity and probably to remind us how the land — flat and ugly as it is — was stolen from the Native Americans, there’s a housekeeper (Misty Upham) who cooks and stares at the crazy white folks. What’s missing in all this is that intangible sense that you’re watching a true ensemble instead of a pick-up cast of movie stars who’ve jetted in to act in a play. August: Osage County isn’t a dud, but it’s inauthentic. You can almost hear the hum of actors’ trailers parked just outside of camera range.