The Chicago-based playwright and actor Tracy Letts writes dramas that seem to take place inside a pressure cooker. Like Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (for which Letts won a well-deserved Best Actor Tony last year as the alcoholic history professor George), Letts’ plays operate on the premise that if you trap a group of combative, highly verbal, desperately unhappy characters together in a set of small rooms, interestingly horrible things will start to happen. Letts’ work has made the transition from stage to screen with varying degrees of success. William Friedkin’s spare, dazzling Bug (2006) starred Ashley Judd and Michael Shannon as an alcoholic and a schizophrenic who descend into a paranoid folie à deux. Friedkin’s Killer Joe (2012) had its passionate partisans, but I found it dramatically inert, despite a blazing performance by Matthew McConaughey as an imperturbable Texas murderer-for-hire.
August: Osage County, directed by John Wells (The Company Men) and adapted by Letts from his Pulitzer Prize–winning play, shares many qualities with those two Friedkin adaptations. It involves a grandiose, sometimes grotesquely comic struggle for power and primacy that unfolds in a confined domestic space. It features outsize, go-for-broke performances from a gifted ensemble cast (we’ll get to whether that’s always a good thing in a moment). And Letts’ dialogue, at its best, hums with black humor and a kind of nasty poetry. But unlike either of the Friedkin collaborations (for which Letts also wrote the screenplays), August: Osage County is a mess, an overcooked movie-star stew that never quite coheres into a movie.
I never saw August: Osage County onstage during its multiple-Tony-winning Broadway run (sorry about all the prize mentions that keep accumulating here—‘tis the season). But by all accounts it made for a cathartic, darkly hilarious evening at the theater. The story—a troubled Oklahoma family reunites and rapidly implodes after the sudden disappearance of its alcoholic poet-patriarch (Sam Shepard)—has a gothic, Eugene O’Neill–esque appeal. And the film’s cast—including Meryl Streep as the patriarch’s cancer-stricken, painkiller-addicted wife, Julia Roberts as their bitter eldest daughter, and Chris Cooper and Margo Martindale as in-laws with their own long-submerged secret—couldn’t be more committed to their roles. So why is August: Osage County the movie so lurching, so emotionally unengaging, so peculiarly bad?
It would be easy to blame that very commitment, to say that August is a barefaced plea for Oscar acting nominations—and there’s certainly some of that going on. Much as I adore Meryl Streep in most roles (and I’m a pretty hard-core champion of even the hammiest Meryl: I loved Mamma Mia!, for God’s sake), her performance as the narcotics-popping, bile-spewing Violet Weston would be too broad as seen from the back row of Yankee Stadium. And most of the cast try to keep up by frantically stuffing into their maws whatever crumbs of scenery Streep leaves unchewed. But I think August’s root problems lie deeper than the level of individual performances: There’s something miscalculated about the whole scale of this enterprise. An hour was cut from the stage play, and while I’m grateful not to have had to sit through an extra 60 minutes of histrionics, the absence of those minutes does nothing to make August: Osage County feel economical or swift.
Simply put, too many storylines and characters are stuffed into this two-hour movie, left to fight their way out like kittens sewn into a burlap sack. Violet’s three daughters, Barbara (Roberts), Karen (Juliette Lewis), and Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), converge at their mother’s ramshackle Oklahoma farmhouse after their father’s disappearance, two of them with significant others: Barbara arrives with her semi-estranged professor husband (Ewan McGregor) and their sullen 14-year-old daughter (Abigail Breslin). Karen shows up in a fancy sports car with her obviously untrustworthy older lover (Dermot Mulroney). Ivy, who never left their hometown or married, is the most filial and loyal of the three, but she’s hiding a creepy family secret (which, when it’s finally revealed, will soon be topped by another family member’s even creepier one).
And in a bizarre and unsuccessful casting choice, Benedict Cumberbatch plays Little Charles, the Weston sisters’ first cousin, who seems intended as a sort of pure-hearted Okie simpleton but who comes across mainly as a very uncomfortable, intermittently British visitor from a neighboring (and possibly worse) movie. Martindale and Cooper, as Little Charles’ harridan mother and kindly, weed-smoking dad, underplay their roles to an admirable degree given the actorly chaos swirling around them, but the Little Charles storyline remains one of the movie’s dramatic dead ends; maybe it was one of the casualties of the one-hour cut. A framing device that has Misty Upham playing the Westons’ quiet, long-suffering Native American housekeeper inches perilously close to Magic Negro territory (though Upham steals every scene she’s in by carrying off the rare-in-this-movie trick of sitting still and listening).
But most of the running time of August: Osage County is spent in tightly framed proximity to Roberts and Streep, who never seem to escape their own movie-star selves as they engage in escalating mother/daughter bouts of acting: “You don’t get it: I’m in charge now!” bellows Roberts’ Barbara at the end of the climactic dinner scene, wrestling her sick mother to the ground to pry a bottle of pills out of her hands. She’s wrong, of course: Though Roberts seems to relish the chance to abandon her storied charm and play someone glum, resentful, and nasty, Streep—even with her face haggard and her shaved head topped with an awful black beehive wig—remains firmly in charge.
It’s somehow perfect that August: Osage County (which takes place during a stifling heat wave) was released on Christmas Day, at a time of year when many people find themselves locked in close-quarters combat with their monstrous relatives. Despite an inappropriately saccharine score by Gustavo Santaolalla, this isn’t one of those uplifting dysfunctional-family-reunion dramas that bring generations together in the theater at holiday time. But it should at least have the salutary effect that, by the time the movie ends, you’ll be eager to get away from the Weston family and back to your own.