'AUGUST:OSAGE COUNTY' (R) (3 STARS)
Written by Tracy Letts based on his play
Directed by John Wells
Actors: Julia Roberts, Meryl Streep, Julianne Nicholson, Margo Martindale, Chris Cooper, Juliette Lewis, Ewan McGregor, Abigail Breslin, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dermot Mulroney, Sam Shepard, Misty Upham.
It is a tricky thing, adapting a stage play into a movie and making it feel real and cinematic. There have been some effective adaptations and some that feel phony and stage acted. I have not seen Tracy Lett's "August: Osage County" on stage but after seeing this film adaptation I feel like I have seen a part of it. The play won a Pulitzer Prize and it is very popular and lauded. Maybe something happened on the way to being adapted but I didn't get into this story as much as I thought I would. The movie can be hard to watch as we follow a dysfunctional family of some mean people. The play was even longer than this movie and I can't imagine that because this movie can be trying and too long.
This adaptation has a killer cast of some very great actors and a screen legend. They get to chew a lot of scenery and also get to play some larger than life,mean,vindictive people. The whole cast does an admirable job but some come off better than others. That has to do with two ends of a spectrum. Some of the characters are sane and grounded and written with subtle strokes and some are cartoonish. The problem is that in the theatre the actors can ham it up on stage but we are in movie land here. The cast is very solid but the two main roles are played by the two biggest actors and the characters come in two major categories. One of the characters came off as phony to me and the other one I really identified with and it affects the performances.
Meryl Streep plays the matriarch of the Weston family, Violet, and she is dying of mouth cancer and is also popping pills to deal with her pain, maybe too many. Julia Roberts plays one of three daughters to Violet and her husband Beverly (Sam Shepard) and she knows her mother is unstable but she tries to deal with it the best she can. I love Meryl Streep, as we all do, but sometimes a role can trip her up and that is what happens here. The story here is pure Southern melodrama and some aspects of the story are over the top to me and Streep's character is over written, the only character here that is. Director John Wells, it seems to me, let Streep run wild with a juicy role and I always saw her acting. There is a difference here in performance than in two of her greatest, most subtle performances (Silkwood and Sophie's Choice). In her best performances she disappears in her roles, here I always saw her acting and that rarely ever happens with her.
Director John Wells lets Streep run away with her role and I suspect he controlled the others more because their characters were simpler and less theatrical. There needed to be more control but weirdly Wells gets the best performance of Julia Robert's career from the only character I liked and believed in. Julia Roberts gives a knockout performance here owning the screen better than Streep does. Part of that I think goes to the daughter character being the saner character and thus the most relatable one. Julia Roberts has matured here into a commanding actress of great control. I fell in love with her all over again after the excruciating "Eat,Love,Pray". I was glued to the screen whenever the movie concentrated on her character taking control, this is her best performance ever and one of the best of the year.
The movie does concentrate on this dysfunctional family and it leads to a big, extended dinner scene that could be nails on the chalkboard to some viewers. There is a lot of yelling and weird dialogue but everytime Julia Roberts spoke I actually enjoyed the scene. When Streep's Violet starts spewing hate and insulting others, I started to cringe or tune out. There are also some other great performances here and some actors come off better than others because their roles are more realistic. My favorite performances and characters here are played by Julianne Nicholson, Juliette Lewis, Chris Cooper and Dermot Mulroney. The other characters are more stagy and phony but I loved Margo Martindale here as I always do. To me, the movie always comes back to Julia Roberts and I cherish her performance and would see this again just for her.
I suspect a lot of movie goers will hate this movie and some will just love the performances and might love Streep here. I do not hate this movie, I just didn't believe it all and maybe I would rather see it on stage. I came into this movie cold never having seen the play. The story seems familiar to me, I have probably seen this same type of Southern melodrama in other movies done much better. On a basic level I would recommend it for some of the performances but maybe a more cinematic director might have made a better movie (Director Wells is mostly a television director). We sometimes blindly want Meryl Streep to get nominated for an Oscar for this type of role and performance. I hope she doesn't get nominated because it would be a disservice to her fine career with her weirdest role to date. I hope Roberts gets some love here, I have never seen an actress control such a messy movie better than Roberts does here.