Movie Review: August: Osage County
Austin360.com | Austin American-Statesman
The arrival of the movie version of Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play “August: Osage County” should be cause for celebration. It has a top-notch cast, with Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Juliette Lewis, Margo Martindale, Chris Cooper, Julianne Nicholson and Benedict Cumberbatch. Letts penned the big-screen adaptation. And John Wells (“The Company Men”) directs.
But don’t rush to see the movie simply because you enjoyed the stage production. You’ll probably be disappointed.
The question, of course, is why?
And the answer is complicated, involving over-the-top scenery chewing, deep tonal inconsistencies and surprisingly ineffective portrayals by the men in the supporting roles, most notably those by McGregor and Cumberbatch, who is woefully miscast.
Let’s start with the scenery chewing. Streep is clearly one of the great actresses of our time, but as family matriarch Violet, she overcommits to being drug-addled, vindictive and downright mean. To play the role, Streep shaved her head and donned a big, black wig — a typical change in physical appearance that smells of Oscar ambition. But no physical transformation can make up for the intentional horrors that Streep’s Violet inflicts on her family.
The family includes an alcoholic father and failed poet, played by Sam Shepard, who quickly goes missing for several days after hiring a new American Indian cook. His disappearance brings various family members back home to Oklahoma, and you quickly realize that all of them will gather around the family dinner table and trade verbal abuse and long-held grudges.
The most notable daughter is Barbara (Roberts), who arrives with her husband and daughter and is expected to take charge of the squabbling homestead. In the stage version, she and her mother are worthy opponents. But in the movie, Streep’s Violet, in full banshee mode, overwhelms Roberts’ Barbara.
Barbara is battling far more than her raving mother, however. She’s separated from her professorial husband Bill (played by a wasted McGregor), and she has an alienated teenage daughter named Jean (played by Abigail Breslin).
Barbara is also busy rolling her eyes at her wayward sister Karen (Lewis), who has come back to Oklahoma with her newest boy toy (Dermot Mulroney). And Barbara doesn’t have much in common with her other sister Ivy (Nicholson), who has stayed in Oklahoma and seems to be being groomed as the family caretaker. The only problem: Ivy plans to run away to New York with her first cousin — and secret lover — Little Charles Aiken (Cumberbatch).
Little Charles, meanwhile, is the son of Violet’s sister Mattie Fae (Martindale) and husband Charlie (Cooper). And Texas native Martindale summons all of her folksiness to play a rather unlikable character who’s not only manipulative but also nearly as mean as sister Violet.
The movie is being marketed as a comedy, but sometimes the humor is so dark that it’s repulsive. I suppose you could give in to the darkness and embrace the on-screen insults, if you really were determined to like this version of “August: Osage County.” But it’s hard to laugh at such deep family dysfunction.
Perhaps the real problem with the movie is this: a lack of high-brow wit. Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” had lots of memorable one-liners amid the insults. So did most of the plays by Tennessee Williams. But whatever wit was in the original stage version of “August” has been overshadowed here by Streep’s performance. She’ll probably get an Oscar nomination. But for once, I don’t think she deserves it.