August: Osage County

August Osage County

  • 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.
  • Final Grade: B

21 thoughts on “August: Osage County

    • Thank you again.

      This is actually better than better than average. It is quite good, Wells’ missteps notwithstanding.

      But this movie is not “big screen required.” You’ll have a similar experience at home.

    • The trailer makes it seem like a comedy. It isn’t one, not really. There is plenty of dark humor, but maybe don’t go into it expecting anything laugh out loud funny. ๐Ÿ™‚

  1. I’m definitely interested in this. I remember the year this play was the talk of the Tony Awards. If nothing else, I feel like I simply must see Meryl Streep in this role. Great review, per usual! ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. I really liked Nicholson and Cooper too, in fact Cooper made the film watchable. I liked the funny scene but the whole dramatic portion was a bit too angrily played for me. It didn’t feel like a story, but a bunch of actors trying to give big performances.

    • I have a feeling you’re not alone in that interpretation. The main actors were incredibly exaggerated, especially Roberts and Streep.

      I think it’s only an issue because Wells films this so intimately, though. If he had used more wide angles and less cuts, it would have kept us at a greater observational distance from the characters, which would have made some of the bigger acting less in our face. (For a comparison, think of Glengary Glen Ross, another on-screen play.)

      Basically, I blame the director for this film’s faults. I think the actors and script mostly overcome his mistakes.

  3. I liked this quite a bit. An actorโ€™s showcase highlighting some of the greatest thespians working today. Is it stagy? Yes, but I enjoyed the theatricality of it all.

    • I do, too, actually. By far my favorite part.

      Which is why I wish Wells had treated it more like it was on stage. Or had capitalized more on the film medium.

      By taking the middle road, in my opinion, he limited the movie’s impact.

  4. โ€œWells seems to understand the science of filmmaking, but not the artโ€

    Very well stated. I probably gave Wells a little too much credit for essentially being proficient at his job. I agree that there is no real artistic merit to his overall approach. Really, it could have been anyone behind the camera.

    • Yeah. That’s what I’m saying. Which is why I wish he’d just gone with wide angles, and few cuts. Let it be play, since it’s not really a film.

      In other words, I wish he’d treated this like Glengary Glen Ross treated Mamet.

  5. I love the “play” aspect of films like this, so I’m looking forward to checking this out as well. Great review and interesting assessment of Wells’ technique. I’ll be on the lookout for some of those details.

  6. Nice review James, although I won’t be seeing this given how much Meryl Streep’s character is sure to drive me up the wall. She’s a phenomenal actress, but this doesn’t appeal at all.

  7. I think your criticism of Wells’ editing isn’t entirely fair. You say it’s a filmed play, but you take him to task for using techniques that attempt to make the story more cinematic and less stagey. Perhaps making Mattie Fae, Barb, and Violet less bearable was his intent too – I don’t exactly thing Letts’ story wants us to feel a lot of sympathy for them.

    • First, thanks for the comment. I like disagreement at least as much as agreement. ๐Ÿ™‚

      Second, that’s half my point. I think he takes a middle ground, which is where the problem rests. If he had used filmmaking style to create or heighten emotion, the way Kubrick, Scorcese, Redford, Kurosawa and other great artistic directors do, then I’d have no issues with his decision to treat this as a film.

      But he doesn’t. His cuts, camera movements and actor blocking are all random, which, in my opinion, creates a discontinuity between Letts’ screenplay and the director’s interpretation.

      Since Wells doesn’t have an artist’s knack for using technical elements to enhance the experience, he should have let it be a filmed play. Use longer takes, stick with establishing shots, let actors go ‘off stage’, and so forth (Glengary Glen Ross – 1992 – is prime example).

      • I doubt going full cinema would have been practical given the rabid fans of the theatrical community who have put this work on a massive pedestal. I guess I just don’t share the same qualms with ending up in the middle ground between the two mediums. It allows for both the stage and the screen camps to get something out of the film.

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