When Tracy Letts’ epic three-hour play August: Osage County debuted on Broadway in October 2007 after a critically acclaimed run at Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago (where Letts is an ensemble member), it was immediately clear that it was a modern theatrical classic. The play took well-worn territory — the dysfunctional family drama — and turned it on its head: the lengthy production boasted an impressive set (a three-story house) and a cast of 13 characters who throughout the evening yelled and screamed, climbed over tables, and broke down in tears. It was both funny and depressing, and it was an immediate hit, spawning a national tour and various international productions. Even before Letts nabbed a Pulitzer Prize and the production swept the Tony Awards, it was clear August would become a film.
Speaking at the Printers Row Book Fair in Chicago the following spring, Letts admitted that he had recently had lunch with Warren Beatty, who was interested in directing the film. “It will likely be on HBO,” he told his audience, noting that the three-hour run time would prohibit it from getting a theatrical release. Fast-forward five years: Letts’ play has been turned into a theatrical film, complete with a star-studded cast of A-list actors who, upon first sight, seem completely miscast compared to the less glamorous Midwestern actors who originated the roles in Chicago (and who reprised those roles on Broadway). There’s Meryl Streep filling in for Tony winner Deanna Dunagan, Julia Roberts for Tony nominee Amy Morton, Ewan MacGregor for Steppenwolf co-founder Jeff Perry, and so on. At first glance, the film looks like the typical bloated Oscar-bait, filled to the gills with more boldface names than you can count. Oh, and that three-hour running time? Cut down to two.
I didn’t have high hopes for August, for all of those reasons. Not to mention that plays rarely make good films, particularly those with August‘s sensibilities. (It can be compared to plenty of Pulitzer-winning offerings, from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof to Crimes of the Heart, both great plays that made middling films that were very clearly based on stage productions.) While it seems like the perfect material for a filmmaker like Mike Nichols, whose experience as a stage director influenced his very good big-screen adaptations of two plays (Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Tony Kushner’s Angels in America), this film is helmed by John Wells, whose sole feature-film directing credit is the little-seen 2010 drama The Company Men. The film adaptation of August: Osage County seemed, on paper, like a rush job, a blatant effort by the Weinstein Company to scrap together a quick awards season offering.
That is, essentially, what it is. But what August does have going for it, other than a terrific screenplay by Tracy Letts, is its performances. Sure, Streep and Roberts, in particular, both seem too glamorous for the film versions of Violet Weston and Barbara Fordham, the cancer-stricken and drug-addled matriarch and her bitter, exhausted daughter. But, you know, that’s Hollywood! Once you suspend disbelief that Meryl Streep could be Julia Roberts’ mother (as well as the mother of Juliette Lewis and Julianne Nicholson), things get much breezier. Despite any allegiance one might have to the original show’s underrated stars, Streep and Roberts both lead a team of very fine actors who, despite the sometimes-odd casting, all deliver astounding performances.
Violet Weston is the star of the show, and thus Streep is clearly having a lot of fun as the embittered and cruel matriarch of this Oklahoma clan. After her husband, Beverly (played with an earthy machismo by Sam Shepard, as is his way), kills himself, the extended family flocks together, some coming from great distances, some from just down the road. Margot Martindale and Chris Cooper make for a hilarious pairing as Violet’s sister Mattie Faye and her husband Charles; Nicholson plays Ivy, the middle Weston sister and the only one who remained at home; Lewis plays Karen, the youngest Weston and no doubt the flightiest, who has also brought her skeevy fiancé, Steve (played by Dermot Mulroney), along with her. Then there’s Bill (Ewan McGregor), husband to Roberts’ Barbara, and the pair’s surly teenage daughter, Jean (Abigail Breslin). Rounding out the family is Benedict Cumberbatch as Little Charles, the dimwitted son of Mattie Faye and Charles and the secret boyfriend of his cousin, Ivy. There is a lot of plot taking place among these characters, all under the nose of Violet, who manages to sniff out all of the family secrets by the end of the film. (I promise it’s a lot less confusing to watch it play out than it is to read in a review.)
And so sets the stage for two hours of family feuds and exposed secrets, all within the claustrophobic confines of the Weston homestead. Despite a variety of establishing shots of the Osage prairies (and a somewhat preposterous scene in which Streep flails through a field of hay bales followed by a determined Roberts), the film relies on close-ups of its actors as they spit, cuss, and sass each other. On stage, the action felt more comedic; on film, however, it’s much more intense and disturbing, despite the film’s recent advertising push calling it “the most outrageous comedy of the year.” The film’s one flaw, and a flaw that is consistent throughout, is Wells’ direction; too often does he seem to miss the moments to heighten the intensity even further, cutting away from another expertly delivered monologue to show the faces of the family members on the receiving end of verbal abuse, be it from the mouth of Violet, Mattie Faye, or Barbara.
Despite the poor direction, which only leads to wondering who could have done this film better justice (aside from Nicols, the easy answer is William Friedkin, who has worked with Letts on the film adaptations of two of his plays, Bug and Killer Joe), the film does offer some of the finest performances of the year. Meryl Streep does her typical Meryl Streep thing — that is, she’s as good as she always is, to the point at which her perfection is almost unexciting. Margo Martindale and Chris Cooper, who have in recent years most often distinguished themselves for the brilliant touches they bring to their supporting characters, are two highlights who, in this competitive award season, will likely go overlooked this year. Juliette Lewis is another standout, particularly because she’s so perfectly cast; the same goes for Julianne Nicholson, who offers an understated turn as the daughter who quietly stands by as the rest of her family implodes around her.
But it is Julia Roberts who steals the show, delivering her best performance since her Oscar-winning role in Erin Brockovich. She may lack the brusqueness of Amy Morton’s Barbara, and it is comical how Roberts is unable to look plain even when her body is draped in flannel and her face framed by dull, straight hair. But she does bring a surprising curtness and edge that we don’t associate with her; even her crass demeanor in Erin Brockovich was defined by a bubbly sexiness, which is completely absent in her Barbara Fordham. She’ll likely not nab any awards this year (despite her lead role, she’s been shuttered off to the supporting actress categories by the Weinsteins to avoid competition with Streep), and there are probably better contenders anyway. But it’s quite possible that Roberts is attempting a new chapter in her career, and she has proven with August: Osage County that she can tackle the dark and the serious as well as the light and comedic.