‘August: Osage County’ Can’t You See We’re Acting Here?

August Osage County

I don’t read that many novels. It’s a whole thing with me that has sparked heated discussions with many people I know. Especially when it comes to discussions about book-to-screen adaptations. My recurring argument is that fidelity almost never means quality when it comes to movie adaptations. My favorite novel of all time is Anna Karenina, and Joe Wright’s adaptation was one of my favorite movies of last year despite the fact that it wasn’t a completely effective adaptation, because it was such an exciting and idiosyncratic point of view on the material. I feel like I’m already going off on a tangent. All I really wanted to say was that I don’t read many novels, but I do try to watch a lot of theater, and thus, I was kind of excited that I was going to be able to compare the experience of seeing Tracy Lett’s August: Osage County on stage and on the big screen.

My reaction coming out of both experiences was, well, underwhelming. The first time I saw the play was back in my hometown of Lima, Peru. I thought the mixed feeling I had about the play had to do with the fact that such an American, Oklahoma-set play was being performed by a foreign cast, but I had seen other American plays that had worked nonetheless. My reaction to the Peruvian production ended up being quite similar to what I felt after watching director John Wells’ movie adaptation. Both were cases in which a solid play (with some inherent problems that I’ll get to later) suffered form being on the hands of an inadequate director, but still managed to be good enough ground for some great performances to flourish out of it.

The movie starts with alcoholic college professor Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard), whose disappearance brings his three daughters to their Oklahoma childhood home, where they have to deal with their pill-popping mother Violet (Meryl Streep). The popular way to describe the movie is as a dark comedy about a monstrously dysfunctional family, although I personally think of it as an (intentionally) over the top melodrama and battle of egos between Violet and her oldest daughter Barbara (Julia Roberts). While the Weinstein Company has tried to advertise it as a warm-ish “dramedy”, the movie would seem to agree with me. Meryl Streep goes all out chewing the scenery, the character is already grand, and she makes her even grander. Julia Roberts does mostly a good job of holding her own, but she can’t help being swallowed up by Streep at times. Not because she isn’t good, but because Meryl’s performance is so big, and I’m not entirely sure that’s a good thing.

I always found the Violet Weston character, which is undoubtedly the part of the play (and the movie) people most talk about, has always been something I’m not completely comfortable with. She is a very mean-spirited woman. She takes the “old woman says inappropriate things” stereotype to the darkest possible places, and this is where the story draws a lot of its comedy from. At the same time, though I find her to be a troublesome character. Or it could be that I haven’t seen an interpretation of the play in which she comes off as a realistic human being. She’s similar to Livia Soprano, but even at more than three hours (in the stage version), there doesn’t seem to be enough time to fully explore and make sense of what exactly makes her tick. There are a couple monologues about her having a rough childhood, but they always felt a little reductive to me. Add to that Meryl Streep, who is a very showy and histrionic actress, especially in recent years, and you have the character relentlessly dominating the picture.

Most of the supporting actors get their moment to shine, but it remains a little irritating when you can’t get more of Chris Cooper or Julianne Nicholson’s struggles. Those two are the stand-outs amongst a very good cast, and after Masters of Sex, and now this, it’s time casting directors take note of Nicholson. I want to see her everywhere in 2014, you hear me? I know it is a reflection of the character and household dynamic that Violet dominates the piece over the other actors, but the way this movie surrenders to her is disappointing. The best moments of August: Osage County come when the actors feed off of each other and the audience can relish in the interactions. Wells’ composition not only gives in to Violet, but also relies too much on shot reverse shot structure. The pivotal dinner scene that has the whole cast in the same room would be so much more interesting and open to discoveries if we could see an open shot and look for reactions instead of having the necessary ones delivered to us in edited close-ups.

There is no question that August: Osage County is Tracy Letts’ piece. His is the auteurist voice behind the Westons, and even if he has chopped down his play significantly in the transition to the screen, his voice can still be heard. Being a talented writer as he is, even if I have problems with the play, there are a lot of interesting aspects to take out of it. I remain somewhat cool about this material, but I do wish that at some point, I’ll see a version of it directed by someone who can hopefully capture Letts’ vision and whatever made so many people fall in love with the original Steppenwolf production.

Grade: 6 out of 10

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