Tracy Lett’s August: Osage County, the Pullitzer award-winning play, may have translated to the screen victoriously, but every aspect was not a victory.
Set in Osage County, Oklahoma, August: Osage County is the macabre story of the Weston family after their father’s (Sam Shepard) disappearance while their mother, Violet Weston (Meryl Streep), pops pills to supposedly ease pain from her mouth cancer. With the arrival of three daughters and Violet’s sister and brother-in-law, news arrives that Beverly–their father–killed himself.
Watching the dialogue-heavy film, it’s clear it was meant for the stage. Whether the opening monologue or the argument over dinner later in the film, the inherent theatricality is ever-present. This isn’t to say it doesn’t work as a movie–actually, the contrary. August: Osage County is a powerful movie. But I’m sure it was a more powerful play.
Reading a synopsis of the play (scene-by-scene) online, I found the two-hour movie left out important parts of the story–like the developing friendship between Jean, the Weston granddaughter, and Johanna, the Native American help Beverly hired. Among other scenes, the ending was changed as well, neglecting to include an important moment where everything is brought back to the first monologue with a line from a T.S. Elliot book. On stage, the play lasts about three hours, though, so cuts, of course, had to be made.
Regardless, the acting was generally impressive. Julia Roberts, playing Barbara Weston, one of the daughters, gave one of her best performances, and Chris Cooper, portraying Charlie Aiken, Barbara’s uncle, gave another stellar performance. Their great portrayals, coupled with the performances of Benedict Cumberbatch, Ewan McGregor and Margo Martindale, made for an almost perfect cast fully capable of handling the heavy dialogue.
Meryl Streep, on the other hand, was not at her best. For every minute she acted brilliantly, there was a minute of ridiculousness, where each action and reaction felt like slightly too much and her character’s insanity went from dark to laughable. She smoked throughout the whole movie like a novice, uncomfortable and awkward holding a cigarette. An actress of her calibre should not overlook a small detail like believably smoking a cigarette.
Even though Streep’s performance was underwhelming, the movie itself was commanding, sticking with me long after the credits rolled. Cooper’s particularly potent speech toward the end of the film was captivating, and the ending was powerful in a subtle way (despite the alteration).
Truly a triumph, August: Osage County, while not flawless in any way, is a tour de force, telling a dark and occasionally hilarious tale about how twisted family dynamics can be.