Tracy Letts' Pulitzer-winning play about a family coming to terms with its past and present deserved a shot at the big screen - just not necessarily this one, an all-star version that tries to fit its savage look at the mistakes and pain inflicted for the sake of "family" into a more conventional prestige picture. Not surprisingly, the assembled star power looked like manna for distributor Harvey Weinstein's Oscar-directed campaigns, only this time it backfired on him, with August: Osage County locked out of all major-category nominations except for Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts.

     It's very much a tale of the emasculating power of Southern matriarchy, as the disappearance of poet and professor Beverly (Sam Shepard) brings the extended Weston clan to the claustrophobic, stifling Oklahoma family house to wait for news. Soon the resentment between dying matriarch Violet (Ms. Streep), a pill-addled harpy with a mean streak amplified by the drugs, and eldest daughter Barbara (Ms. Roberts), who was "daddy's girl" but finds herself too close to her mother for comfort, bubbles up and the jeu de massacre proper gets going over the course of a couple of days. To be sure, there are men around; but with the exception of the innately decent though occasionally off-color brother-in-law Charles (an excellent Chris Cooper), they're all either ineffectual or surplus to requirements. It's women that run this house, and as with nearly all female clans, affection and resentment walk hand in hand and love and hate are never far from each other.

     The key issue with August: Osage County is that Mr. Letts' brutally honest, often uncomfortable structure and dialogue, eschewing any pretense of a neatly predictable ending, needed an equally uncompromising handling - not the merely functional illustration provided by veteran TV show runner John Wells. And the starry cast, where even small roles are taken by name actors, elicits from the viewer expectations the film really can't fulfill. This isn't necessarily the actors' fault - who wouldn't want to be a part of this ensemble? - but Mr. Cooper has what is the single meaty male role, and it's really a women's picture, with Ms. Streep's fierce intelligence being for once upstaged by a strong Ms. Roberts and Julianne Nicholson and Juliette Lewis as the two other Weston daughters. There's a strong sense that August: Osage County is never as hard-hitting a film as it wants to be, or even thinks it is, nor does it fulfill the potential inherent in its premise and casting, ending up settling for a reasonably formatted prestige picture that does little justice to both its origins and its cast.

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
Director: John Wells
Screenwriter: Tracy Letts, from his stage play August: Osage County
Cinematography: Adriano Goldman
Music: Gustavo Santaolalla
Designer: David Gropman
Costumes: Cindy Evans
Editor: Stephen Mirrione
Producers: George Clooney, Grant Heslov, Jean Doumanian, Steve Traxler (The Weinstein Company, Jean Doumanian Productions and Smokehouse Pictures in association with Battle Mountain Films and Yucaipa Films)
USA, 2013, 121 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Alvaláxia 5, Lisbon, February 19th 2014

Nominated for two 2013 Academy Awards (Best Actress - Meryl Streep; Best Supporting Actress - Julia Roberts)


Popular Posts