Tracy Letts’S 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, August: Osage County, is an intergenerational mix of melodrama and black comedy that draws from decades of previous dramas: There’s Anton Chekhov, Edward Albee, Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams. Along with the sibling rivalries, incest, adultery and addiction, there’s just enough smart dialogue to keep the mood, if not exactly light, at least vigorous. Although a couple of performances here may earn Oscar nominations, by the time you’ve sat through the wreckage, you’re left with the sense that this really must have worked better onstage.
The setting is rural Oklahoma, and although we get a few hayfields and broad horizons, most of the action is set in a dark rambling house that’s the scene of a family crisis and reunion. In the opening scene, we meet Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard), a once well-known poet, who now spends most of his time getting drunk. In the opening scene, Beverly hires a young native woman (Misty Upham) as a housekeeper. He explains that his wife, Violet, is undergoing treatment for mouth cancer and that she “takes pills,” which is somewhat like saying Niagara Falls is wet. During the interview, Violet (Meryl Streep) interrupts. Her eyes dart, her attention wavers and she almost collapses. She’s hopped up on something; unfortunately, she rarely comes down for the rest of the movie.
After the opening scene, Beverly goes missing, and the couple’s three middle-aged daughters are summoned home. They include the quiet Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), who stayed single and lives close to her parents; the acerbic Barbara (Julia Roberts), who returns from Colorado with her 14-year-old daughter (Abigail Breslin) and estranged college professor husband (Ewan McGregor); and flibbertigibbet Karen (Juliette Lewis), who blows in from Florida with her sleazy fiancé, Steve (Dermot Mulroney) in his flashy red convertible. Rounding out the group are Violet’s bossy sister, Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale), her easygoing husband, Charles (Chris Cooper) and their insecure son, Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch), who is the target of his mother’s constant barbs.
August: Osage County, which was directed by John Wells and adapted by Letts from his own play, is not so much a drama as a solar system of eight performances, orbiting around the giant flaming ball of gas – namely, Streep’s Violet. She twitches, cackles, snorts, wheedles, curses and hurls insults, curls up in self-pity and lashes out again. It’s certainly something to see though mousy little words like “performance” and “acting” don’t quite do it justice. While Streep’s work holds an awful fascination, the movie feels like it takes a needed breather whenever she’s off-screen.
As the judgmental Barbara, a glaring Roberts, her lips pressed into a tense strip offers a welcome contrast to Streep’s histrionics. It becomes clear that Barbara is more of a chip off the old block than she’s willing to admit. The role brings out the hardness that often seems to be lurking behind Roberts’s winsome surface. The other sisters – the quiet one, (Nicholson), the silly one (Lewis) – feel as if they’re there for no other reason than to provide contrast, though they each get their melodramatic subplot. The characters of McGregor and Mulroney are so thinly drawn they’re almost unnecessary, while Cumberbatch, who plays the bumbling, twitchy cousin, Charles, seems wildly miscast: You sympathize with the struggles of the performer, not the character.
Martindale and Chris Cooper as Charles’s mother and father are the only characters who behave like people rather than types; Cooper, in particular, has one terrific scene, when he loses his temper with his wife, and the corrosive “meanness” that runs the Weston family. This is very much a movie of good moments, but unconvincing arcs.
How does an otherwise talented ensemble of actors get so off-track? Some scenes – when characters eavesdrop on each other, or a dinner that explodes into a donnybrook – feel like they’d be more suited to the stage than the screen. The bigger issue is the part of directing that applies to stage or screen: unity of performances, control of pace and rhythm that makes the jokes actually sting and the drama hold tension. Wells, who has worked in television since the 1980s as a writer-producer on numerous shows (ER, Southland), simply doesn’t provide the shaping hand that’s needed. Or, perhaps, he went into a trance while watching his prize star doing all that acting.