With its star-studded cast, Tracy Lett’s adaptation of his own Pulitzer Prize-winning stage play, August: Osage County, directed by John Wells, can hardly fail to pull in the crowds. Of course, the family feuds, disintegrating marriages, adultery, and addictions which feature so strongly certainly help.
Early on in the film, alcoholic poet Bev Weston (Sam Shepard) walks out on his insufferable wife and commits suicide. What follows is the unravelling of his dysfunctional family as his prescription drug-addicted, cancer-stricken widow Violet (Meryl Streep) speaks her vituperative mind at the wake to end all wakes, attended by her three daughters, Barbara (Julia Roberts), Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) and Karen (Juliette Lewis), along with their various partners and offspring. Violet tears into each of them in turn in a memorably blazing scene which is at once funny and hideous. Her bullying, unmasking, and chastising are extreme, ending rather over-dramatically in a mother-daughter brawl that touches a nerve which is probably near the surface in many families.
Much of the film revolves around the relationship between the three very different sisters. Barbara is the most feisty but she has to cope with a sullen daughter (Abigail Breslin), a disintegrating marriage and the realisation that, at times, she is in danger of becoming the mother she rails against. Karen is shallow, insecure and inane whilst Ivy, who stayed behind to be near her parents, is the put-upon daughter. The prevailing theme is very much “She fucks you up, your mum”, and half-way through the film Violet reveals her own psychological hurt at the hands of her mother. This is heavy-duty insecure attachment and inter-generational wounding for which Letts holds the women largely responsible. Yet the psychological complexities of the female characters are compelling. They all behave outrageously, but because we have such an understanding of how each of them has been afflicted by their upbringing, it is difficult not to feel compassion for them, even at their most vitriolic.
However, the male partners, played adequately by Ewan McGregor, Dermot Mulroney and particularly affectingly by Chris Cooper, are less interesting characters. The most distinctive male role is the shy, socially-awkward cousin, “Little Charlie”, but Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance doesn’t quite ring true, instead conveying the sense of an Englishman trying to inhabit an American’s skin.
One of the most potentially interesting characters, Johnna (Misty Upham), Violet’s Cheyenne Native American carer and housekeeper and the only responsible “adult” in the house when everyone else is losing the plot, appears only briefly and is given little chance for development. As a result, her presence in the film seems little more than an inauthentic gesture.
To me, August: Osage County looked like a film that wanted to stay a play. Some of the set pieces which were no doubt intense and intimate when performed in a theatre, were dragged into melodrama when translated to screen.
In the final analysis, I’d recommend August: Osage County for Julia Roberts’ superbly nuanced portrayal of Barbara as well as for Meryl Streep’s at times sublimely crazed performance. There’s also a very satisfying plot twist towards the end and the beautiful shots of the vast, wide-open Oklahoma Plains intensify the bleakness of the story. Even Eric Clapton’s “Lay Down Sally” as Violet’s dance track of choice lends a sense of strangeness in the context of this film. These, for me, are the redeeming features of a film which I enjoyed but wanted to enjoy more.