For those familiar with the Tracy Letts stage play upon which this film is based, August: Osage County will largely be seen as an uneven yet ultimately satisfying experience that captures the soul of Letts's writing even if it does take some liberties with the stage version's setting. In the stage version of August: Osage County, there is an unsettling confinement that sets in because the action takes place entirely within the house involved in this family gathering while this cinematic adaptation allows for outdoors scenes that may be more visually arresting but they also reduce the built-in tension and cause some of the conflicts to be play out as more histrionic than authentic.
For a good majority of those familiar with the source material, the entire affair's consummate scene is that which takes place fairly early on after Bev (Sam Shephard) has killed himself and the family has gathered at their Oklahoma home for a post-funeral dinner. The family's matriarch is Violet (Meryl Streep), a drug-addicted and poison-tongued woman suffering from oral cancer, an illness that I'd dare say seems like just desserts for a woman who spews forth venomously towards her three daughters Barb (Julia Roberts), Karen (Juliette Lewis), and Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) and anyone else she deems deserving. It's rather astounding that there's any sense of family obligation left within this family at all, though one need only look at the faces of those gathered around the dinner table to realize that they'd all rather be just about anywhere other than where they are currently gathered.
One of the great things about this stage adaptation is that because Letts knows these characters so well and because director John Wells clearly trusts the material, everything that happens on-screen happens patiently. This dinner scene that unfolds takes nearly 30 minutes, or a full 1/4, of the film's total running time and it's absolutely essential to everything that happened before it and everything that happens after it.
As one likely expects, Meryl Streep gives her usual powerhouse performance as Violet, embodying her with such relentless irritability and attention-seeking rage that the discomfort you feel at her over-the-top antics may very well make you want to cover your eyes and ears.
I have heard some critics expressing concern that Streep is showboating as Violet by going so far over-the-top that even the word histrionic seems inadequate. My only guess is that those critics aren't as familiar with the roots of this source material and they lack insight into the dynamics within this family.
Violet IS a drama queen. It's no coincidence that her idol is Elizabeth Taylor, and Streep vividly brings that dramatic flair to life in ways that are off-kilter, out of balance and just plain uncomfortable. Violet's rhythm is completely her own and it needs to be different than even that with her own daughters, though if you're watching carefully you can't help but see Barb as a Violet in the making. Streep doesn't often play completely unlikable characters and, perhaps more importantly, she's smart enough as an actress to know that even within the most unlikable character there's a soul at work. Streep relentlessly pursues the soul of Violet and then wrings it for all it's worth.
Doing the best work of her career, and that includes her Oscar-winning appearance in Erin Brockovich, Julia Roberts is mesmerizing and at times rather aching as Barb. Roberts's performance is being billed by The Weinstein Company as a "supporting" performance, but one need only watch a few of her scenes to realize she could easily be pegged to go toe-to-toe against Streep in the Best Actress category. While Streep serves up the showier performance, Roberts's is far more emotionally resonant and natural. While we're used to seeing this kind of quality work from Streep, watching Roberts surrender to it all is simply an extraordinary experience.
August: Osage County may have two dominant female roles, but it's stage roots have also contributed to what is one of the best ensemble casts of the year. It's a joy to see Juliette Lewis back in a prime spotlight and she takes advantage of it by giving the film some of its definitely needed moments of lightness and humor as Karen, the youngest sibling who shows up with a gentleman (Dermot Mulroney) of questionable reputation. Should Roberts get bumped up to Best Actress, that could open the door for Julianne Nicholson, unquestionably sweet as Ivy, who harbors a super big secret crush on her first cousin, Little Charlie (Benedict Cumberbatch). Ewan McGregor also impresses as Barb's husband, while Abigail Breslin does a nice job as their daughter.
Among the supporting men, Chris Cooper is given the most opportunity to shine as Little Charlie's father, with one scene in particular practically screaming out "Oscar nomination." Under-appreciated actress Margo Martindale, as Little Charlie's mother, also gives such a deep and meaningful performance that you'll wish she had more screen time.
August: Osage County isn't a flawless film, which is more than a little unfortunate given the film's tremendous performances and made-for-awards cast and crew including co-producers George Clooney and Grant Heslov. The greatest error in judgment, at least in this critic's opinion, is in ever allowing the action to move outside the home, a move that too often deletes the palpable tension between characters. There are times, as well, that Wells seems almost too reverent with the material and too unwilling to do what's really needed to successfully transition certain "stagey" sections more smoothly to the big screen.
However, these truly are minor quibbles but they will keep the film from landing in The Independent Critic's top films of the year. Minor flaws aside, August: Osage County is uncomfortable and irritating and brash and bold and emotional and entertaining and, for the most part, just about everything you're hoping it will be.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic