I’ve never seen the Pulitzer-winning stage production that August: Osage County is based on, but I can largely imagine what it looks like, given that there is little embellishment utilised in separating the adaptation from its origins: the presence of the proscenium arch can be felt a mile off. This isn’t a bad thing as such – the film makes the play look great – but it vocalises exactly how little it feels like a movie and more of an adaptation, or rather, more of a demo tape showcasing some of the finest talent predominately active within the past fifteen years or so.
That the film gathers such venerable actors isn’t necessarily a good thing, mind, and ensemble performances do have to be approached with a pinch of salt. Benedict Cumberbatch, for instance, suffers beneath the tremendous weight of scenery-chewing going on around him, his late arrival in the movie only working against him as the other actors, many of whom are better anyway, have already begun to hit their stride. Either way, the majority of the actors struggle against Meryl Streep’s belligerent Oscar crusade, just as her character in the film smothers the projections of those around her.
Julia Roberts is a key example of this. Otherwise, she performs better than any other in the film, yet when pitted against Streep, her onscreen mother, her reactions often come across as stale against the older actress’ larger-than-life performance. Worst still is the fact that the characters feel incredibly stock, and as such comparisons can easily be made between this and other sister-drama staples such as Hannah & Her Sisters and Happiness. Take Juliette Lewis’ character Karen, for example, the superficial and promiscuous outlier who strays furthest from the family nest, or Roberts’ tough, by-the-books sub-matriarch constantly at odds for total control of the family. These things tend to suggest that the majority of August‘s issues are directly inherited from the play.
Indeed, there’s a fair bit to like about August: Osage County. It’s a regular tearjerker, which I suppose may be inevitable with ailing, once-strong old ladies such as Streep’s Violet who is continuously doped out of her mind on painkillers, and the tenuous family structure collapsing all around her. Having complained about the acting up until now, it’s worth mentioning that the waterworks are often prompted by the delivery of Streep and Chris Cooper more than anything in particular to do with momentum on the director’s part. For instance, when all the characters are together for the centre-piece dinner sequence, it eventually explodes into a harrowing emotional meltdown despite its terrible staging and stumbles in the uneven build-up.
It’s enjoyable enough, rather hollow yet mourning of the Midwest and traditional family values in the same way as Nebraska. It’s out on DVD this week for fans of maudlin dramas, and for everyone else, it’s on Netflix.
August: Osage County was directed by John Wells, was written by Tracy Letts (adapted from her own play of the same name) and stars Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Abigail Breslin, Benedict Cumberbatch, Juliette Lewis, Margo Martindale, Dermot Mulroney, Julianne Nicholson, Sam Shepherd and Misty Upham. It lasts for 120 minutes and is a production of Smokehouse Pictures. Distributed in the UK on DVD and Blu-ray by the Weinstein Company.