August: Osage County begins with the short-lived narrator (actor and Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Sam Shepherd) meditating on T.S. Eliot’s line, ‘Life is long.’ But for the audience, it’s about to get a whole lot longer.
Shot on location in Osage County, Oklahoma for authenticity, with three Academy Award-winning actors heading an all-star cast and Tracy Letts adapting his own Pulitzer Prize- winning play for the screen, it’s baffling how August: Osage County can be so uninvolving.
Director John Wells (The Company Men), a prolific television writer, director and producer, lets the inherently melodramatic characters and story get the better of everyone, and most of the play’s black comedy is all but obliterated.
As far as dysfunctional families go, the Weston’s have few rivals. When the film opens, Beverly Weston (Shepherd), a retired teacher and frustrated poet, has decided that drinking himself to death is taking too long and he drives off to drown himself instead.
After spending a few minutes with his chain-smoking widow Violet (Meryl Streep), who is dying, appropriately enough, of mouth cancer and addicted to her pain killers, you not only sympathise with Beverly, but might feel like following suit. Perhaps because Streep is so convincing an actress, you don’t feel like spending any time with her character.
Like the murder in an Agatha Christie novel, Beverly’s funeral provides the excuse for the estranged family to gather at the sprawling colonial family home (oddly surrounded by a barbed wire fence) where the family’s secrets are revealed. Beverly and Violet had three daughters who, by the end of the film, are fairly suicidal too. Barbara (Julia Roberts) is separated from her husband (Scottish actor Ewan McGregor), who is living with a younger woman in Colorado. Their unhappy 14-year-old daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin) is caught smoking marijuana with the thrice-married fiancé (Dermot Mulroney) of her aunt – sister No. 2, Karen (Juliette Lewis).
The third daughter, Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), is a 40-something single woman and, as the only daughter who hasn’t moved away, at her needy mother’s beck and call. Ivy, however, is secretly planning to elope with her unemployed first cousin, Little Charles Aiken (Benedict Cumberbatch), an insecure man so maladroit that he drops his pathologically critical mother’s (Margo Martindale) casserole on the dining room floor. But as Violet’s pill-fuelled aggression turns downright nasty and everyone is at loggerheads, the secrets keep piling up like the body count in that Agatha Christie mystery.
For a movie about a family, it’s surprising that the only thing the characters have in common is their huge capacity for misery. The only sympathetic people in the film are the Native American nurse/cook/maid (Misty Upham) and Charles Aiken (Chris Cooper) the uncle. With the exception of Ivy and Little Charlie, none of the actors remotely resemble one another or seem to act like they’ve grown up together. It is a credit to the film, however, that the stars show their ages, and the fabulous Streep‘s make up is applied to make her look (a bit too) gaunt rather than attractive.
But Director Wells has bigger problems. Letts’ script is so theatrical that it is difficult to make the Weston’s home (in which all of the action takes place) look like anything more than a stage set. The action too, seems staged, not helped by crowded and inherently talky set-pieces. A scene where Violet turns on the record player and starts to dance by herself, feels like the curtain is about to close.
Wells’ one attempt to open up the play fares worse. In the final scene, Barbara drives off towards Colorado (645 miles away) in her bathrobe and mismatching pyjamas, having left her luggage, purse and money for petrol back in the house.