The 400-Word Review - August: Osage County
By Sean Collier
January 13, 2014
August: Osage County’s road to film adaptation was perilous. The Pulitzer-winning play by Tracy Letts is an explosive family drama, by turns heart-wrenching and hilarious; led (on Broadway and on tour) by Oscar-winner Estelle Parsons, the show floored audiences with a take on inter-house history and strife both relatable and grandiose.
It was also very much a work for the theater. It’s stagey; the sum of the action takes place in the home of drug-addled matriarch Violet Weston, which is built floor-to-attic on-stage and presented in an impressive cross-section. It’s long, coming in at about 210 minutes. And its plot movements, too, are very theatrical, recalling Shakespeare or Oscar Wilde in the unraveling.
So a film version — especially one trimmed all the way to two hours, a too-brief approximation — can feel like little other than an imitation to those familiar with the original. Fortunately, director John Wells (who doesn’t show off) was handed the most stacked cast of the year to work with. Assemble the likes of Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Benedict Cumberbatch, Juliette Lewis, Margo Martindale, Julianne Nicholson and Sam Shepard and little can go awry.
And, of course, the story works. In the midst of a sweltering Oklahoma summer, alcoholic poet Beverly Weston (Shepard) goes missing and is feared dead, leaving his scattered family to return and ensure the well-being of Violet (Streep), who has developed a violent painkiller addiction as a result of — or perhaps simply concurrent to — a cancer diagnosis. Children Barbara (Roberts), Ivy (Nicholson) and Karen (Lewis) each arrive with a shaky relationship in tow. But Violet’s deteriorating (but often incisive) state ensures that the gathering quickly becomes less about the whereabouts of Beverly and more about the exposure of the family’s collected dirty laundry.
In the play, the evolution of the story feels organic; here, it feels rushed, and the full impact of the film’s last third suffers in translation. But the joy and full-flavored discomfort in watching things disentangle in the hands of these performers is irresistible, as is the much-hyped collision of Streep and Roberts. And while the direction is merely unobtrusive, Adriano Goldman’s cinematography adds a dusty dimension to the film; he almost seems to photograph the oft-discussed heat. August: Osage County is imperfect, but any further criticism is quibbling; if you can’t go see it on stage, at least see it on screen.
My Rating: 9/10
Overall Rating on CriticsChoice.com: 80/100
Sean Collier is the Associate Editor of Pittsburgh Magazine and a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. Read more from Sean at pittsburghmagazine.com/afterdark