Toronto Film Review: ‘August: Osage County’
There are no surprises — just lots of good, old-fashioned scenery chewing — in “August: Osage County,” director John Wells’ splendid film version of playwright Tracy Letts’ acid-tongued Broadway triumph about three generations in a large and highly dysfunctional Oklahoma family. Arriving onscreen shorn of some girth (the stage version ran more than three hours, with two intermissions) but keeping most of its scalding intensity, this two-ton prestige pic won’t win the hearts of highbrow critics or those averse to door-slamming, plate-smashing, top-of-the-lungs histrionics, but as a faithful filmed record of Letts’ play, one could have scarcely hoped for better. With deserved awards heat and a heavy marketing blitz from the Weinstein Co., this Christmas release should click with upscale adult auds who will have just survived their own heated holiday family gatherings.
Onstage, confined to a creaking, cavernous old house that seemed variously a womb, a prison and a sarcophagus for those who passed through it, “August” consciously aligned itself with a particular strain of Great American Plays set in just such environs (including multiple works by Edward Albee, Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams). Onscreen, gently opened up to include the big skies and infinite horizons of the real Osage County (where the pic was lensed), it suggests a more barbed, astringent “Terms of Endearment” for the Prozac era, with fewer tears and far more recriminations.
Once again, we are introduced to the Weston clan by way of patriarch Beverly, a melancholic poet (played here by an excellent Sam Shepard, in a role originated by Letts’ own late father, Dennis) who quotes T.S. Eliot’s immortal maxim that “life is very long” just before taking matters into his own hands: first by mysteriously disappearing, then by turning up drowned in a local lake. The ensuing funeral serves as a de facto family reunion, the previously empty house filling to the rafters with Beverly’s three grown daughters, their significant others and assorted relations. All have come to pay their last respects. None will leave without incurring the wrath of the widow Weston, Violet (Meryl Streep), a cancer-stricken, pill-popping martinet whose idol was Liz Taylor and who could be Albee’s Martha a few decades — and many rounds of marital prizefights — on from “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
From all points they converge: Barbara (Julia Roberts), the eldest, with her estranged husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) and moody teen daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin) in tow; Karen (Juliette Lewis), the youngest, who shows up on the arm of her supposed fiance (Dermot Mulroney), a sleazy Florida hustler with unsavory business connections; and middle child Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), whose big secret is that she’s sweet on her first cousin “Little” Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch) — a secret, it turns out, much bigger than even Ivy knows.
Whatever else one may think of “August,” in Violet, Letts (who adapted the play for the screen) has created one of the great, showstopping female roles in recent American theater — his Mother Courage, Mama Rose and Mary Tyrone, all rolled into one — and Streep plays it to the hilt, in and out of a black fright wig (to hide the character’s chemo-stricken hair) and oversized sunglasses, cursing like a longshoreman and whittling everyone down to size. Nothing slips by her, she says repeatedly. You’d better believe it. It’s a “big” performance, but it’s just what the part calls for, since Vi is something of an actress herself, craving the attention that comes with turning a solemn family gathering into an occasion for high theater. This may be Beverly’s funeral, but it’s Vi’s chance to shine.