August: Osage County (John Wells, 2013)
Depending on how you feel about family dysfunction, your reaction to the latest cinematic adaptation of a Tracy Letts play may be fascination, repulsion, some combination of both, or just plain boredom. Based on his 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winning work of the same name, August: Osage County takes Tolstoy’s oft-quoted opening line of Anna Karenina – “each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” – as its primary raison d’être and spends a vitriolic two hours (one hour less than the play) showing us just how unhappy its central characters – members of the Oklahoma Weston clan – can be. I’ll be honest: I hated it in the beginning, taking it for nothing more than a screech-fest, but then it evolved, little by little, into something more palatable and substantive, and by the end, I found that I had not entirely disliked the journey. The main reason my opinion was so transformed is simple, and goes by the name of Julia Roberts.
It’s been a while since Ms. Roberts has been given such a rich opportunity to strut her stuff. Well, maybe “strut” is the wrong word, since that’s what Meryl Streep, as the onerous matriarch, Violet, does as she chews through the scenery. Roberts’s Barbara – Violet’s eldest daughter – simmers, then explodes, then simmers again, each time losing more control, each time sadder than before. It’s an indelible portrait of the legacy of emotional abuse, and a tour-de-force performance. Why Meryl Streep has been garnering the most accolades for the film – and why she has been pushed as Best Actress by the film’s producers, rather than Roberts, who plays the main character and is on the screen for more time – is beyond me. As far as I’m concerned, the film belongs to Julia.
Letts revels in crazy dysfunction, at least based on the other films I’ve seen adapted from his work, Bug and Killer Joe (I’ve never seen any of his plays performed live, although I’ve read Bug). In those previous movies, however – especially Killer Joe – the craziness was part of a larger story, whereas in August: Osage County, it sometimes feels like that’s all there is. There’s good writing in the dialogue, however (Letts also wrote the screenplay, as he did for the other films), and wit in the quieter moments.
The story centers on how the disappearance of Beverly (a fine Sam Shepard), the Weston patriarch, forces the three Weston daughters – Barbara, Ivy (a marvelously understated Julianne Nicholson) and Karen (a funny Juliette Lewis) – to come back home to figure out what to do with their prescription drug-addled, booze-swilling and cancer-stricken mother. Well, actually, it only forces two of them to come home, since Ivy has never left which, it turns out, is a major bone of contention between her and her sisters. When Barbara shows up from out of state – teenage daughter (Abigail Breslin, watchable) and philandering husband (Ewan McGregor, wasted) in tow – to resume her role as take-charge eldest daughter, Ivy figures she might as well take advantage and finally leave. Not so fast.
You see, this is the kind of story where everyone is angry with everyone else, and, as written by Letts, they have good reason to be. Over the years, the accumulation of emotional violence and betrayal has left the Westons incapable of peaceful interaction. It makes for a good show, but that’s as much a minus as a plus. Nothing feels truly genuine, except for the performances of Julia Roberts and Julianne Nicholson, and while individual moments may rise above the rest, the whole is dispiritingly superficial, since we always feel the hand of the writer at work. It’s more than tightly scripted; it’s forced.
Still, as a showcase for American actors, it is not without interest. Margo Martindale, as Violet’s sister, Mattie Fae, is fun, as is Chris Cooper, in folksy charm mode, as her husband. Benedict Cumberbatch, as their feeble-minded son, Little Charles, is, however, miscast. His fumbling ways here do not come naturally, and we can always see the “actor” at work. Dermot Mulroney rounds out the cast as Karen’s latest creepy beau, and his superficiality actually serves his part well.
For me, the most fascinating – and disturbing – aspect of the movie is what I have decided to call Tracy Letts’s “misadmirogyny:” his simultaneous admiration and loathing for the strong, yet mean and frightening, female characters he has written. On the one hand, Letts clearly respects these women; on the other hand, they are deeply unsympathetic – at least some of the time. No wonder the men run meekly away every time there’s an emotional explosion: these women aim to dominate. Tough love. Misadmirogyny.
So, for me, the film is a very mixed bag. I loved almost every scene with Julia Roberts. Unfortunately, many of those scenes also featured a showboating Meryl Streep. I suspect that, for many viewers, Streep’s larger-than-life performance will resonate, as will the family dysfunction on display. I also suspect that fans of the play will not be disappointed. I’ll be curious to know what you think.