REVIEW: August: Osage County

22 01 2014

August OsageI’m a firm believer that there are some source texts that are absolutely impossible to botch, provided they keep the main narrative intact.  Tracy Letts’ play “August: Osage County” belongs in such a category.

Many in the theatrical community already assert that it will be in the American dramatic canon along with works by Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, and Tony Kushner.  Letts provides some of the most gripping familial tensions I’ve ever read, and it’s chock full of meaty characters in an ensemble for the ages.

John Wells’ film adaptation of “August: Osage County” brings that story to a larger audience than likely could ever be reached on one stage.  Moreover, the cast he assembles is like the kind of “one night only” extravaganza that fans can only dream about.  I’ve never seen the show live, so I can’t really speak to its theatrical power.

Letts’ words did, however, jump off the page and paint such a vivid picture in my mind that I feel as if I did.  While the film does a decent job translating the action to the realm of cinema, there still feels like a bit of raw intensity evaporated in the transfer.

That’s not to say, though, that Wells doesn’t effectively harness the power of the screen to bring a different dimension to Letts’ opus of intergenerational discord.  On a stage, you can’t key off the subtleties in an actor’s facial movements, which is one of his most clever editing tricks in “August: Osage County.”  Some theorists have labeled film a fascist form because it has the power to direct your attention towards only what it considers relevant, but the way Wells chooses to organize these massive scenes is actually quite freeing.  It ensures we do not miss crucial reactions that serve to define the arcs of the characters.

Julia Roberts

Wells’ face of choice is that of Julia Roberts, who plays Barbara “Barb” Weston, the woman at the true core of the piece.  (A campaign in Best Supporting Actress dishonors Roberts’ central role in the film.)  Barb is the matriarch-in-waiting of the Weston clan, and we enter the film at first through her.  She’s the seemingly sane daughter who had the sense to leave her rural Oklahoma home yet still feels entirely responsible to ensure the family remains intact.

“August: Osage County” shows her moral high ground eroding ever so slowly as people and events drag her down to the dirt with her venomous mother Violet (Meryl Streep), who is ailing from cancer treatments and the unexpected death of her husband.  With every cutaway to Roberts’ face, we witness the ever-so-subtle erosion of Barb’s sanity until she quite literally evolves that which she vehemently swears she will never become: her mother.  Roberts emotes a gathering tempest in her reactions, and by the end of the film, all that has been boiling under the surface finds violent (although perhaps excessive) expression in the film’s climactic moments.

As if to fulfill Oscar Wilde’s aphorism “All women become like their mothers: that is their tragedy,” Roberts adjusts her acting over the course to resemble Streep’s.  By the end, both have reached practically unimaginable levels of fury.  It’s no surprise that Meryl Streep, the greatest actress of our generation, can pull this off.  Though Roberts has received her fair share of acclaim, it still comes as a shock that she can match Streep note-for-note.

The rest of the cast largely gets out of the way and lets the two leading ladies tear each other apart.  Standout performances of the ensemble come from Margo Martindale as Violet’s incorrigibly noisy sister Mattie Fae and Benedict Cumberbatch playing against type as Mattie Fae’s bumbling son Little Charlie.  Props should also be given to the relatively unknown Julianne Nicholson, whose lack of iconography makes her a perfect fit to play Ivy Weston, Violet’s quietest and most self-effacing daughter.

But these turns have nothing on Streep and Roberts.  Their characters trade Letts’ barbs and jabs flawlessly to both comic and tragic effect.  At times, perhaps the two resort into a bit of an acting cagematch of sorts.  Although, gosh, watching two Oscar-winning actresses try to trump one another?  Who would ever want to watch that?  (I’m being facetious, in case you couldn’t tell.)  B+3stars

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4 responses

22 01 2014
jjames36

Good review. I agree on Roberts and Streep. Though I think other actors actually outshine them, they are good, too.

The screenplay is also vibrant and effective.

I think Wells’ direction considerably less skilled than you do, however.

22 01 2014
Marshall

Who do you think was better than Streep and Roberts? And I don’t find his direction particularly skilled (if you really want to know what I think about John Wells, read my review of “The Company Men”) but it was good by not being bad.

22 01 2014
jjames36

I explain it more in my own review, but I guess I think he was bad. 🙂

And I thought Julianne Nicholson the best performer here, followed by Chris Cooper. I’d put Cumberbatch third. Their performances were less about Acting and more about subtlety.

22 01 2014
Marshall

All gave great performances. Cooper is always great at quiet performances that don’t command much attention.

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