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August: Osage County

Familiarity breeds contempt says the Bard. That adage certainly seems to apply here, as I reflect back on my initial look at awards-season prestige picture, “August: Osage County” from director John Wells. Would I have enjoyed the film version of Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play a bit more if I hadn’t originally experienced it on Broadway back in 2009? Perhaps. Maybe even likely. But I still doubt that I would have found this motion picture to be very good. On stage it was a Southern Gothic epic, spread out over the course of 3 acts, and clocking in at roughly 200 minutes. “August: Osage County, The Movie” is more like your typical familial soap opera, with a running time a few minutes shy of two hours. Where the hell did the rest of it go? Entire subplots are either dropped or simply chopped to the barest minimum of a line or two. Unforgivable? I guess not(especially considering that the screenplay was adapted by Mr. Letts himself), but it’s certainly jarring when you’ve had a taste of the unexpurgated work. And no disrespect to award-winning actress Misty Upham, but my first inkling of the trouble to come was upon seeing that she was cast in the role of Johnna in the movie. Let’s just say that Ms. Upham is less conventionally pretty then the knockout that played the role on stage(Kimberley Guerrero, of “Seinfeld” fame). And the character’s looks and Native American heritage are integral to the plot. But movie stars in BIG roles don’t liked to be upstaged by younger, prettier actresses in minor parts. Did that thought process come into play when casting Johnna? I bet it did, and it was strike one from me from the get-go.

Strike two was Meryl Streep. Yeah, you heard right…and my hope is that she doesn’t get an Oscar nomination today for her work as the cancer-stricken, Violet Weston—and I’ll tell you why. Streep—an indisputable genius of a performer—should not be deemed Oscar-worthy every time she steps onto a set. And the fact is that Meryl manages to bite through big hunks of scenery in every moment she appears in “August: Osage County”. Subtlety, be damned. Now, it’s not all her fault. Violet is written as a big, loud, focus-stealing character(Deanna Dunagan won a Tony for it on Broadway, and I witnessed her replacement—the wonderful Estelle Parsons). Here’s the problem: those types of histrionics can work beautifully in a cavernous thousand-seat theatre. But on a screen, almost everything is in closeup, and I sure wish Ms. Streep had toned it down a tad. The plot of “August: Osage County” is sprawling and intricate: a dying matriarch, a missing alcoholic father, affairs, divorces, deceptions…as the extended Weston clan and their offspring and tag-alongs gather at the family home to support the now alone Violet. And there is some fine work from diverse performers such as: Chris Cooper, Julianne Nicholson, Dermot Mulroney, Abigail Breslin, Juliette Lewis, Margo Martindale, and yes, even the exasperatingly overworked Benedict Cumberbatch…among others. But the only other actor anyone is talking about is Ms. Julia Roberts. And she’s pretty good here…I simply believe she is miscast. I promise not to hold Julia up against the grand Amy Morton, the renowned Barbara Weston-Fordham that I experienced on the Great White Way—that wouldn’t be fair. And Roberts dowdies herself up just enough, carries a perpetual grimace, and underplays nicely. There just doesn’t seem to be all that much oomph beneath the surface, and the character of Barbara needs it in her reserves. So, Julia ends up being sturdy in a role that calls for an eventual outburst of pure fire. Barbara’s dinner confrontation with Violet should leave us wowed.

It’s a crowded field that arrives every early winter, and it’s an annual wish that only the sweetest cream reaches the top. Of course, it rarely works out the way, so I imagine that “August: Osage County” has a decent enough shot at picking up a modest level of attention. But I can’t imagine it actually winning anything. “August: Osage County” is a great play that just doesn’t translate well to the multiplex. What was poignant and measured on the boards, becomes forgettable and shrill through the view finder. This type of medium crossbreed is always a tough transfer, and this time it just didn’t swim. And with a third of the text cut, it rapidly becomes a wearying collection of platitudes. To make matters worse, there is a tacked on women’s empowerment bit(in a car, at the film’s tail end)that really stuck in my craw. It shifts the focus to a somewhat arrogant place, that effectively works against what the show is really all about. I don’t care if Letts wrote it, I don’t like it. And his original creation was better left alone.     Grade:  C

next review up: “Enough Said”   

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4 comments on “August: Osage County

  1. Shame to hear this property has not transferred well. I too loved it on Broadway (and Melbourne and Sydney) so I imagine I will also be disappointed. I think I will still have to see it though, once I find myself in a place where it is actually screening.

    • It’s just too truncated for me, Simon—it loses the essence of the play. But, of course, the Academy couldn’t resist giving Meryl her 18th nomination yesterday…and Julia her 4th. They are not awful performances, but they aren’t even the best acting jobs in the film! Margo Martindale and Chris Cooper are wonderful in it. Let me know when you finally attend. ML

  2. Good review Mark. It seems like everybody is really trying hard to steal each and every scene from the other, which, in essence, ends up being quite overbearing. It’s never boring, but it isn’t all that interesting either.

    • Thanks for the kudos. You seemed to enjoy it more than me, but you are on target with how overbearing and uninteresting it all becomes. Yet the stage play is marvelous! I’m confident that the film will win nothing and prove to be forgettable before long. ML

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