August: Osage County: Toronto Review

A solid reworking of the Broadway hit, though even with this high-wattage cast some electricity is missing.

Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts head an all-star ensemble in the screen version of Tracy Letts' acclaimed play about a messed-up Oklahoma family.

TORONTO – Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer- and Tony-winning play about the unique capacity for cruelty of the modern American family, August: Osage County, is a fat juicy steak of a drama marinated in corrosive comedy. Arriving on the screen with mixed dividends from an all-star cast, the film doesn’t shed its inherent theatricality, stringing together speeches and showdowns peppered with nuggets of stagey dialogue that resist being played in naturalistic close-up. But it’s nonetheless an entertaining adaptation, delivering flavorful rewards in some sharp supporting turns that flank the central mother-daughter adversaries.

The Weinstein Co. release opens in the thick of awards-season contention on Christmas Day, and its cast should attract a sizeable audience drawn to intelligent adult material. However, the film’s muted emotional payoff and dark shadings may ultimately keep it from doing more than respectable business.

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Capably directed by John Wells from Letts’ compressed screenplay, the film comes in roughly an hour shorter than the play, with no significant loss of incident. Pulling back from the heightened reality of the stage muffles some of the savagery of Letts’ humor. And the play’s broader themes -- using the crumbling connections of one family to reflect on America’s dissipated soul -- are perhaps necessarily sidelined to focus on the human drama.

While it’s very much performance-driven, the movie makes some gains in translating the desolate landscape of Oklahoma from imagination to reality. Adriano Goldman’s hazily sun-bleached widescreen images of the long roads and lonely plains surrounding the old Weston family home convey the inescapable isolation these people have taken with them even after they've moved away.

The bilious matriarch of the clan is Violet (Meryl Streep), whose overuse of painkillers has been somewhat legitimized by the fact that she has cancer. To be specific, cancer of the mouth, a detail her husband Beverly (Sam Shepard) refers to as “the punch line.” An alcoholic poet-turned-academic, Beverly hires a Native American housekeeper (Misty Upham) to take care of his addled wife, then disappears without explanation, prompting Violet to summon their three daughters.

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They arrive on the scene to bolster their mother, whose love comes laced with blunt criticism, humiliation and recriminations. Violet has no filter.

Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) is the seemingly mousy one who stayed single and close to home, enduring more than her share of their parents’ dysfunction. A chip off the old block in terms of her strength, Barbara (Julia Roberts) comes in from Colorado with her estranged husband, Bill (Ewan McGregor), and weed-smoking 14-year-old daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin). Self-absorbed Karen (Juliette Lewis) arrives from Florida with her slick sportscar-driving fiancé, Steve (Dermot Mulroney), convinced he’ll finally be the one who sticks.

Also rolling up with casseroles and comfort are Vi’s sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale) her husband Charles (Chris Cooper) and their insecure son, the tellingly named Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch), whose failings are one of his mother’s favorite topics.

Whatever secrets these people think they’re keeping, Vi lets them know that nobody slips anything by her. Worrying news makes way for tragedy, plus a whole string of awkward disclosures, which gives her fewer reasons to hold back.

Violet Weston is a fabulous character, a venomous gorgon who doesn’t let a little cognitive impairment get in her way when she’s spoiling for a fight. She’s Martha from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by way of Mary Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Edward Albee and Eugene O’Neill were obvious influences on Letts, along with a dash of Tennessee Williams, Lillian Hellman and Shepard. (That adds resonance to the latter’s handsomely craggy presence in the cast, playing a small but memorable role originated onstage by the playwright’s late father.)

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As Vi, Streep is every bit as mercurial, ferocious and funny as one would expect. Slapping on a brunette wig over a sparse crop of gray when she can be bothered, she careers from needling attacks to sneaky insinuations, from drugged-out incoherence to puddles of self-pity, often punctuating those shifts with a vulgar snort of a laugh. However, like her work in another recent screen adaptation of a Broadway hit, Doubt, she hits all her marks with brilliant technique yet brings no element of surprise. As good as Streep is, the chewy part actually might have benefited from a left-field casting choice.

Roberts gets stuck with some of the more theatrical dialogue, and her role has a less complete arc than in the play, where Barbara’s bitterness and disappointment were underscored by the creeping realization that she’s more like her mother than she cares to admit. Roberts’ characterization favors the hardened, brittle side, which is a little one-note at first. But the performance grows steadily in stature as she balks at Vi’s out-of-control behavior and takes charge of the crisis. It’s probably her grittiest role since Erin Brockovich.

Lewis is amusing as a deluded girly girl who’s not the brightest, babbling inappropriately with no read on the people around her. And Nicholson is a quiet revelation in the more contained role of Ivy. For a long time watching and listening without saying much, she eventually makes a move to assert herself and carve out some happiness in the drama’s most affecting strand. Playing against type as a man inured to being treated as invisible or regarded as a loser, Cumberbatch is also quite touching.

Not all the ensemble has a lot to do, but the weak point is McGregor. He seems unsure of how to play Bill and not remotely at home in the American heartland. When you have actors with the ease and authenticity of Shepard, Cooper and Martindale on hand, the imposters stand out.

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Cooper has the movie’s best scene, in which the thoroughly decent Charles refuses to let his wife’s outrageous belittling of their son continue, reeling at the spite that courses through her family’s blood. Martindale responds beautifully, shocked at him standing up to her and then chastened by the truth of what he says.

The strength of that scene says something about what’s missing in the film, which is intellectually and emotionally engaging moment to moment but slightly lumpy in terms of overall flow. Wells directs the actors smoothly enough in individual scenes, but his work lacks the cohesiveness to really pull all the characters together and convey their shared past. The sad, heated exchange between Charles and Mattie Fae has more sensitivity, more raw feeling and more sense of the couple’s history than any other scene in the movie.

Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Gala Presentation)

Opens: Wednesday, Dec. 25 (The Weinstein Co.)

Cast: Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Abigail Breslin, Benedict Cumberbatch, Juliette Lewis, Margo Martindale, Dermot Mulroney, Julianne Nicholson, Sam Shepard, Misty Upham
Production companies: Jean Doumanian, Smokehouse Pictures, in association with Battle Mountain Films, Yucaipa Films
Director: John Wells
Screenwriter: Tracy Letts, based on his play
Producers: George Clooney, Grant Heslov, Jean Doumanian, Steve Traxler
Executive producers: Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein, Ron Burkle, Claire Rudnick Polstein, Celia Costas, Jeffrey Richards, Jerry Frankel
Director of photography: Adriano Goldman
Production designer: David Gropman
Music: Gustavo Santaolalla
Costume designer: Cindy Evans
Editor: Stephen Mirrione
Sales: The Weinstein Co.
No rating, 120 minutes.