Toronto Film Review: ‘August: Osage County’

"August: Osage County"

Tracy Letts’ acid-tongued Broadway triumph reaches the screen with its scalding intensity fully intact.

There are no surprises — just lots of good, old-fashioned scenery chewing — in “August: Osage County,” director John Wells’ splendid film version of playwright Tracy Letts’ acid-tongued Broadway triumph about three generations in a large and highly dysfunctional Oklahoma family. Arriving onscreen shorn of some girth (the stage version ran more than three hours, with two intermissions) but keeping most of its scalding intensity, this two-ton prestige pic won’t win the hearts of highbrow critics or those averse to door-slamming, plate-smashing, top-of-the-lungs histrionics, but as a faithful filmed record of Letts’ play, one could have scarcely hoped for better. With deserved awards heat and a heavy marketing blitz from the Weinstein Co., this Christmas release should click with upscale adult auds who will have just survived their own heated holiday family gatherings.

Onstage, confined to a creaking, cavernous old house that seemed variously a womb, a prison and a sarcophagus for those who passed through it, “August” consciously aligned itself with a particular strain of Great American Plays set in just such environs (including multiple works by Edward Albee, Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams). Onscreen, gently opened up to include the big skies and infinite horizons of the real Osage County (where the pic was lensed), it suggests a more barbed, astringent “Terms of Endearment” for the Prozac era, with fewer tears and far more recriminations.

Once again, we are introduced to the Weston clan by way of patriarch Beverly, a melancholic poet (played here by an excellent Sam Shepard, in a role originated by Letts’ own late father, Dennis) who quotes T.S. Eliot’s immortal maxim that “life is very long” just before taking matters into his own hands: first by mysteriously disappearing, then by turning up drowned in a local lake. The ensuing funeral serves as a de facto family reunion, the previously empty house filling to the rafters with Beverly’s three grown daughters, their significant others and assorted relations. All have come to pay their last respects. None will leave without incurring the wrath of the widow Weston, Violet (Meryl Streep), a cancer-stricken, pill-popping martinet whose idol was Liz Taylor and who could be Albee’s Martha a few decades — and many rounds of marital prizefights — on from “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

From all points they converge: Barbara (Julia Roberts), the eldest, with her estranged husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) and moody teen daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin) in tow; Karen (Juliette Lewis), the youngest, who shows up on the arm of her supposed fiance (Dermot Mulroney), a sleazy Florida hustler with unsavory business connections; and middle child Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), whose big secret is that she’s sweet on her first cousin “Little” Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch) — a secret, it turns out, much bigger than even Ivy knows.

Whatever else one may think of “August,” in Violet, Letts (who adapted the play for the screen) has created one of the great, showstopping female roles in recent American theater — his Mother Courage, Mama Rose and Mary Tyrone, all rolled into one — and Streep plays it to the hilt, in and out of a black fright wig (to hide the character’s chemo-stricken hair) and oversized sunglasses, cursing like a longshoreman and whittling everyone down to size. Nothing slips by her, she says repeatedly. You’d better believe it. It’s a “big” performance, but it’s just what the part calls for, since Vi is something of an actress herself, craving the attention that comes with turning a solemn family gathering into an occasion for high theater. This may be Beverly’s funeral, but it’s Vi’s chance to shine.

Shine she does, especially during the long funeral dinner at the end of act two that is, as it was onstage, Letts’ piece de resistance. Streep is electrifying to watch here, goosing, prodding, meting out punishment and laying family secrets bare, surprisingly gentle one moment, demonic the next. And Roberts, who hasn’t had a big, meaty part like this in years, possesses just the right hardened beauty to play an aging woman let down by life, terrified at the thought of becoming her mother.

Wells, who is best known for having produced such small-screen phenoms as “ER” and “The West Wing,” does an impressive job shooting and cutting among 10 major characters, all of whom get their chance to engage Vi in verbal tango. He isn’t a natural film director per se (his lone previous feature, 2010’s “The Company Men,” was the earnest, corporate-downsizing also-ran to “Up in the Air”), but he understands what “August” needs in order to work onscreen, how to preserve its inherent claustrophobia without rendering it completely stagebound, and the result is far more successful than any more stylized “cinematic” treatment probably would have been. (Overall, Wells’ work here recalls the American Film Theater series of stage-to-screen adaptations from the 1970s, of which John Frankenheimer’s “The Iceman Cometh” was the major highlight.)

“August” is the third Letts play to reach the screen in a decade, following William Friedkin’s films of “Bug” and “Killer Joe.” And if, on the surface, it appears to be Letts’ straightest piece (void of surveillance implants and fellated chicken legs), just beneath it may be the most violent and perverse. It’s a panorama of unfulfilled lives in which people do the most unforgivable things to the ones they (supposedly) love, mostly in an effort to feel better about themselves. What makes Letts an original aren’t his subjects so much as the foul, logorrheic, yet oddly musical way his characters have of expressing themselves. The people in “August: Osage County” talk the way we wish we could, and sometimes do, when some long-suppressed yearning or accusation wells up inside us — torrents of words batter and bruise only to arrive at some bracing, lucid insight: “Thank God we can’t tell the future. We’d never get out of bed.” Or, “It lives where everything lives, somewhere in the middle.”

If Streep and Roberts have the roman-candle roles here, the entire cast is commendable, with Letts and Wells giving even the most seemingly incidental character (like the fine Native American actress Misty Upham as Vi’s live-in caretaker) a grace note or two. Lewis is a particular hoot as the daughter hanging on to her carefree youth with all fingernails firmly dug in, while Cumberbatch is very touching as the clumsy, unemployed young man whose diminutive name is one of Letts’ few overtly symbolic touches. (Also excellent: Margo Martindale and Chris Cooper as Little Charles’ parents.)

Shooting in widescreen — a practical necessity with this many characters to squeeze into a frame — Adriano Goldman (“Jane Eyre,” “The Company You Keep”) beautifully captures the hazy half-light of a house whose permanently drawn window shades are mentioned in the dialogue. Indeed, it is a place where we can never be sure whether we are traveling a long day’s journey into night, or a long night’s journey into day.

Toronto Film Review: 'August: Osage County'

Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Gala Presentations), September 9, 2013. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 119 MIN.

Production

A Weinstein Co. (in U.S.)/Entertainment One (in Canada) release and presentation of a Jean Doumanian/Smokehouse Pictures production in association with Battle Mountain Films and Yucaipa Films. Produced by Steve Traxler, Jean Doumanian, George Clooney, Grant Heslov. Executive producers, Jeffrey Richards, Jerry Frankel, Ron Burkle, Claire Rudnick Polstein, Celia Costas, Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein.

Crew

Directed by John Wells. Screenplay, Tracy Letts, based on his play. Camera (Technicolor, widescreen), Adriano Goldman; editor, Stephen Mirrione; music, Gustavo Santaolalla; music supervisor, Dana Sano; production designer, David Gropman; art director, Karen Gropman; set decorator, Nancy Haigh; set designer, Uldarico Sarmiento; costume designer, Cindy Evans; sound (Datasat/Dolby Digital), Drew Kunin; sound designer/supervising sound editor, Lon Bender; re-recording mixers, Marc Fishman, Mike Prestwood Smith; visual effects supervisor, Alan Munro; visual effects, Moving Target; second unit camera, Patrick Capone; casting, Kerry Barden, Paul Schnee.

With

Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Abigail Breslin, Benedict Cumberbatch, Juliette Lewis, Margo Martindale, Dermot Mulroney, Julianne Nicholson, Sam Shepard, Misty Upham.

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  1. John Zulovitz says:

    Michael T.,

    I can’t say I disagree with you, and while I didn’t despise “August: Osage County” (the play), neither did I find it to be earth-shattering nor Letts’s best work (that would be “The Man from Nebraska”). True, there are some powerful elements (namely Violet Weston, who seems a cross between Mary Tyrone and Medea); but the revelations are a bit much and none too original. There were even moments when I could not help but think I was observing a Carol Burnett skit. Now, there’s nothing wrong with Ms. Burnett’s show, which was comic genius; but for a play that wears the weight and warp of Great American Plays, the comedy was quite forced and out of place. How to put it? There was just too “too much,” you know? And the obvious echoes of “Long Day’s Journey into Night” (possibly the best American play ever written) had me wanting to view or read it rather than “August: Osage County.” Seriously: there were moments in “August” when one expected to hear the foghorn… and Violet remarking upon it in a drug-addled stupor in the dead watches of the night.

    That said, I can’t bring myself to write off the play entirely. The post-funeral dinner is indeed a doozy. Ivy’s moments of quiet power offer much-needed relief. Barbara’s declaration at the end of Act 2 (I think it was) was jarring. Though I can’t imagine Julia Roberts — neither a great nor a terrible actress — nailing this. I might be surprised; who knows? But when I heard this was going to be a film, I couldn’t get Laura Linney (as Barbara) out of my head. Especially when I heard Ms. Streep was taking on Violet “No shrinking violet, she” Weston.

    Someone (Tom?) on this comments board mentioned Mike Nichols. I have to say, it would indeed have been interesting to see what he did with etching the Weston clan’s saga into celluloid.

    And I have to agree with your response to Allen’s response about awards. Most of them are silly and should be taken with a grain of salt (especially once you discover how some of the various memberships vote; it would be better if they actually watched the films instead of going with what popular flavor is in the air during voting season). Not one of the groups is free of politics or bureaucracy; but the one that seems more on than off is the NYFCC. The Academy? I’ll pass. They’ve invalidated themselves too often. As Jodie Foster said, “It’s like a bingo game.” Truly, the film you mentioned (a horrible, sloppy, insulting movie that reinforced that which it was pretending to investigate) is all one needs to consider when wondering about the veracity of some awards.

  2. john says:

    ” August: Osage County” was the title of a poem written by Howard Starks from Durant Ok.

  3. jerry says:

    you can see it done daily on Jerry Springer. better. shorter. without wasting good actors.

  4. Joe Redmond says:

    Can’t Wait!! It will be great to have a ‘ Night at the Movies’, that not an overblown tent-pole noise maker.

  5. Tom says:

    I will attend this film exactly for the scenery chewing and with a cast this good I don’t see how I can go wrong. But if ever there was a film that needed to be directed by Mike Nichols…this was it.

  6. Michael T says:

    I am shocked at all the praise this derivative, entirely obvious play received. The twists, such as they were, were telegraphed and unsurprising. The acting over the top – seems the same style is prevalent in the film. I was really hoping to like the play since the reviews and awards were piled on thick. But it just wasn’t anything more than rehashed mediocrity. If you do go see this movie, be aware you will not find anything remotely new or thought provoking just a hunk of big ole melodrama.

    • Allen says:

      Well, I’ll most certainly take your word over the Pulitzer committee’s. Many thanks.

      • Michael T says:

        Ah, snark lives! Let’s see how you like the flick. Just because someone or some flick gets an award doesn’t mean it’s worth anything. Seen Crash?

  7. Jen says:

    Um…Little Bill?

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