August: Osage County, John Wells’ sophomore film adaptation of the play by the same name, concerns a dysfunctional family reunited during a sweltering summer crisis, and has been compared to stories like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and A Streetcar Named Desire. Clearly, it aspires to these great character dramas, but more often than not falls terribly short. Which is a damn shame.
The film begins with Beverly and Violet Weston (played by Sam Shepard and Meryl Streep, respectively) in a clearly unhappy marriage that appears to have been crumbling for decades. They’ve just hired a new caretaker for Violet, who has become addicted to painkillers after a diagnosis of throat cancer. Beverly disappears suddenly, which prompts a family reunion of their three grown daughters Barbara, Karen, and Ivy (Julia Roberts, Juliette Lewis, and Julianne Nicholson), along with several other partners, family members, and Barbara’s angsty teen daughter. Cue the family drama and fireworks.
It’s hard to fault the actors involved. Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts are being lauded for their performances, and this movie certainly gives them plenty of moments to show off their acting chops. There are other standouts: Margo Martindale and Chris Cooper, in particular, are fantastic and mesmerizing as usual on screen, and Juliette Lewis seems to have nailed the darkly humorous tone of the original play. Others – Ewan McGregor, Julianne Nicholson, and Benedict Cumberbatch – seem either wildly miscast or given almost nothing to do. McGregor in particular is terribly dull and given the thankless role of being a minor (and largely inconsequential) foil to Roberts’ character.
But even with great performances all around, they don’t add up to a cohesive whole. The tone of the original play is that of a deeply dark comedy. Wells decided to pursue a more stone-cold realism that makes trudging through the dirt and venom of this family dynamic nearly insufferable at times. You come out of the film feeling drained and defeated with nary a moment of relief.
Attempts at humor are injected here and there, of course, but more often than not they come off as nasty and mean-spirited. Take the banter between Streep and Roberts during an awkward dinner scene; while they’re hurling insults back and forth, revealing secrets and vitriol at a rapid-fire pace, the rest of the family sits uncomfortably on the sidelines. It’s dark, mean, and assaultive. What could have been a moment of great truth and humor amidst the chaos comes off as simply a display of malice.
Other scenes have similarly dark tones, but manage to peek briefly at human truisms; at one point, the 3 adult sisters shuffle off away from the histrionics of their mother’s home and are given a moment to breathe together, and explore their feelings towards each other in their own apprehensive ways. Or the illuminating scene with Juliette Lewis, as youngest sister Karen, who flees the family suddenly after confronted with a terrible truth. Margo Martindale is always a joy to behold on screen, and she certainly doesn’t disappoint here. Roberts and Streep, despite being a hundred miles away from the proper tone a story like this begs for, still manage to pull off their one liners with the quality you would expect from actors of this caliber.
One can’t help but imagine this material (and, perhaps, even these actors) in the hands of a more competent director, with a better sense of the tone of the original play. Imagine Robert Altman taking a stab at this? Unfortunately, it all adds up to a whole lot of wasted potential, which is far more disappointing than a movie than never would’ve amounted to much in the first place.
Score: 5.0 out of 10