This adaptation of Tracy Letts’ award winning play is not a movie. At its core, it remains a play, one occurring on screen instead of on-stage.
Good thing, then, that the play is so good.
August: Osage County has a stage production’s larger than life characters; its visceral emotional explosions; its over-the-top performances; and its dry humor. It also has character entrances and exits that feel like actors have just come on or gone off stage, not to mention a play’s talkiness. All of which means this feature works best when treated and approached as though it is an on-stage production.
The content is dark, even depressing, but the script uses wry, dark humor and witty dialogue to infuse enough lightness to counter some of the negativity.
A dream cast helps sustain it, as well. As matriarch Violet Weston, Meryl Streep is an interesting anti-hero for whom we cannot root but with whom we can still empathize. Julia Roberts plays Barbara almost perfectly, revealing a younger version of Violet, but one racked by unwavering desire to finally break free of her mother’s awful influence.
Margo Martindale (Mattie Fae Aiken) plays another strong-willed woman, and she too adds layers to her character.
All three performances are exaggerated, a fact some viewers will deem a mistake. I am not one of them; I think the actors’ choices appropriate given Letts’ dialogue.
Still, Julianne Nicholson (Ivy) delivers the project’s best performance. Hers is the most subtle, the most nuanced, the most layered. Which is why we care more about Ivy than the other characters.
Unfortunately, insofar as Director John Wells doesn’t realize his film works best as an on-screen play, he is not as good as his cast or writer. Wells films and edits August: Osage County as a movie, frequently cutting between establishing shots, close ups, point of view, over the shoulder and other frames, a technique which proves mistaken.
For two reasons. First, close up, point of view and over the shoulder shots provide a level of intimacy audiences do not experience in stage productions. Which is why characters like Mattie Fae, Barbara and Violet work better on stage than on screen; when we feel intimate with such individuals, their actions become less bearable.
Second, Wells doesn’t capitalize on the full potential of his medium. Camera placements, character blocking and editing cuts all seem random, without the slightest psychological or emotional intent. Wells seems to understand the science of filmmaking, but not the art.
Consider when Charles (Chris Cooper, the movie’s second best performer) finally scolds Mattie Fae. He delivers an impassioned and sympathetic speech, and then he storms off. To do what exactly? Stand in the yard, doing nothing. Why? What emotion is Wells tapping with Charles’ passivity? The answer, of course, is none.
Yet, Letts and the actors do enough to make August: Osage County an emotional experience, rendering it a successful project.