TORONTO — On Monday evening I caught the Toronto International Film Festival’s world premiere of August: Osage County, John Wells‘ big-screen adaptation of Tracy Letts‘ Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning play, here at Roy Thomson Hall. The film, which was produced by George Clooney and Grant Heslov (who produced last year’s best picture Oscar winner Argo), among others, features an amazing cast: Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Juliette Lewis, Julianne Nicholson, Dermot Mulroney, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Margo Martindale, Abigail Breslin, Sam Shepard and Misty Upham. The film earned sporadic applause after certain lengthy monologues and then a lengthy standing ovation after the credits began to roll — but only once the theater shined the spotlight on the cast. I imagine that the film could do decent business upon being released by The Weinstein Co. on Nov. 8 — but, as far as awards, I’m not sure it will live up to the massive expectations many have had for it.
The dialogue-heavy dramedy, in the hands of Wells — who is a legend in the world of TV, but who previously directed only one film, TWC’s The Company Men (2010) — unfolds largely like a play that has been filmed, as opposed to opened up. It revolves around three women (Roberts, Lewis and Nicholson) and their significant others (McGregor, Mulroney and Cumberbatch), plus other relatives (Martindale, Cooper and Breslin), who reunite at the Oklahoma home of their mother (Streep) following the death of their father (Shepard), whereupon they each air grievances about how others present at the gathering have caused their lives to become terribly screwed up in one way or another. To my mind, it’s all a bit depressive and oppressive after a while — we each have our own problems, so why would we want to go to a theater to spend hours listening to those of others?
The only answer, of course, is to see how some of our finest actors choose to portray them. Some do a very fine job, earning rare mid-movie applause for their efforts (e.g., Cooper gets some for a particularly memorable verbal-smackdown of his wife). The best of the lot, though, are Streep (trotting out a wig and yet another spot-on accent) and Martindale (a character actress whose profile has risen greatly in recent years via TV’s Justified and The Americans) as sisters who have become the irrepressibly opinionated and assertive matriarchs of their own messed-up families. My guess is that, if any members of this massive ensemble are to receive individual nominations — which became harder to come by when so many actors and actresses are splitting each other’s votes — it would be Streep for best actress and Martindale for best supporting actress. (In a highly competitive year, I’m not sure I see picture or director noms in the cards, and even the aforementioned noms won’t come without work.)
Some stories that are great on the stage simply don’t translate as well onto the big screen. Who knows why? Maybe you need to be in the same room as the actors to feel the urgency and electricity. The August play, which I never caught on Broadway, was described as a present-day Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1962) or Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966). The August film strikes me as something more like Carnage (2011), featuring confrontation after confrontation between characters portrayed by some terrific actors, but, ultimately, no enlightening revelation or explanation for why we have been asked to endure such acrimony. What are we supposed to come away from this experience thinking and feeling? That we are fortunate in that our problems are not as bad as these people’s? I’m not sure that’s going to prove enough for most awards voters, particularly in such a competitive year. And based on my conversations with a half-dozen other major awards bloggers after the film, I don’t think I’m in the minority.