Why does the first film starring both Meryl Streep AND Julia Roberts, based on a play that won both five Tony Awards AND the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, wind up disappointing? There are a couple of reasons why the film of August: Osage County, which opens on December 27th in New York and Los Angeles, should have been at least as good as the play:
1. Both the play and the movie were written by Tracy Letts, and the story is the same, albeit cut from three and a half hours to two:
After poet Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard) disappears, his three daughters, including Barbara (Julia Roberts) and other family members, return to their home in rural Oklahoma and their troubled mother Violet Weston (Meryl Streep.) One by one the characters’ afflictions, resentments and ugly secrets unfold.
2. The cast is the best that Hollywood has to offer – performers who don’t just have star power and solid acting chops, but who individually and collectively signal “quality.”
Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep are full-fledged movie stars who help sell any picture they’re in. Streep is also probably the country’s most respected screen actress: She has been nominated for 17 Academy Awards, more than any other performer.
She delivers another riveting performance, nailing as usual the dialect and the precise (unflattering) look, offering a persuasive portrait of a woman who is in pain, and inflicting pain on everybody around her. The histrionics, self-exposure, unusual (mannered) line deliveries, the odd pauses, the little familiar gestures, are all vintage Streep — an acquired taste, perhaps, but one most of us have acquired.
But the other members of the 12-member cast are no slouches. Ewan McGregor, who plays Julia Roberts’ estranged husband, can also lay claim to movie stardom.
Margo Martindale and Chris Cooper, as Violet’s sister and brother-in-law, elevate most every picture they are in, and this one is no exception. Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock Holmes) plays their son in a standout performance as the clumsy, self-loathing first cousin beaten down by his own mother.
The pleasant discoveries here are the actors playing the other two sisters, Juliette Lewis and Julianne Nicholson.
Director John Wells has cast even the smaller roles with either first-rate veterans or stars on the rise who have their own fan following, such as Abigail Breslin (the kid in the film Little Miss Sunshine; Helen Keller in the Broadway revival of The Miracle Worker) as Julia Roberts’ teenage daughter.
But the film of August: Osage County doesn’t measure up to the play, in at least three ways:
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1. Julia Roberts performance is like blunt-force trauma.
At one point in the film (as in the play), Bill Fordham (McGregor) says to his wife Barbara:
“You’re thoughtful, Barbara, but you’re not open. You’re passionate but you’re hard. You’re a good, decent, funny wonderful woman, and I love you, but you’re a pain in the ass.”
But Julia Roberts mostly just shows us the half of Barbara that’s the closed, hard pain in the ass.
This is the sort of performance that excites Oscar voters; impresses and shocks the vox populi – think glamorous Diana Ross as drug-addicted Billie Holliday in Lady Sings the Blues, or supermodel Charlize Theron sans makeup as a serial killer or drab mine worker. They’re given credit for their lack of vanity. Here is Julia Roberts — the great beauty, America’s sweetheart — angrily, bitterly and above all loudly in your face. I have little doubt many will praise her “brave choices.”
But what’s largely missing from Roberts’ portrayal are the gradations and shades, the insecurities, the feeling of a character burdened beyond endurance – all present in Amy Morton’s performance on stage. Without this side of Barbara’s character, the audience cannot witness her evolution before our eyes. When Barbara barks, right before the Act II curtain, “I’m running things now,” we understand that she has been transformed….into her mother. There is no such evolution evident in the film.
Ironically, Barbara’s quiet scene in the gazebo with her two sisters is among the most watchable in the movie, precisely because it’s one of the rare moments when Julia Roberts is toned down, nuanced.
(To be fair, it is Roberts’ over-the-top performance that makes one of the best scenes in the play just as thrilling in the movie; since I am trying to avoid spoilers here, I’ll only refer to it as the “eat the fish, bitch” scene.)
2. The filmmakers make poor technical choices
The black comedy of August: Osage County is derived to a great extent from the characters’ ironic distance from their own misery. It helped that there was a literal distance between the characters and the audience in the play. But in the film, after some opening establishment shots of the rural landscape that feel obligatory, there is a Les Miz-level close-up of Sam Shepard’s Beverly Weston that more or less destroyed for me the arch humor of his opening monologue. We then watch Meryl Streep’s drug-addled Violet, whose short-cropped white hair is falling out because of chemotherapy, babble incoherently, then behave flirtatiously in front of the new maid (an under-used Misty Upham.) Nothing about this is funny. We feel Beverly’s embarrassment, and we ourselves, forced into so intimate a view, are embarrassed as well. There are moments later in the film that showcase Letts’ mordant wit, but one could certainly be justified in feeling misled by the producers’ billing of this film as a comedy.
Similarly, the constant insertion of reaction shots during the characters’ speeches undermines them.
It is a bit baffling that the producers would pick as director John Wells, known for TV shows like ER and The West Wing. I don’t know of any background he has in the theater, and this is only his second film.
But you have to wonder whether any director could have turned August: Osage County into as fine a film as it is a play. The story’s pleasures, even its artistry, seem inextricably linked to theatrical rather than cinematic conventions. This leads to a glaring example:
3. There are too many over-the-top revelations.
We have come to expect the revelation of past secrets on stage.
After all, the characters are just sitting there talking; it’s still mostly a verbal art.
So, the drama comes from a verbal reconstruction of the past
On screen however, we largely live in the present. It’s a visual medium
Yes, there are films that hinge on the revelation of secrets, but these are often suspenseful thrillers (The Usual Suspects.) Other films replete with secrets – often with their origins in literature (Ordinary People) or with the feel of a play (The Big Chill) – are primarily portraits of characters; take away the secrets and these dramas could still work. And yes, there have been plays with secrets that have worked as films, such as Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, directed by Mike Nichols (whose background in theater is as extensive as in film), and starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.
But the revelations in August: Osage County are doozies — adultery, divorce, cancer, alcoholism, addiction, suicide, child abuse, pedophilia, incest – and they pile up higher and way faster than any soap opera. Indeed, soap opera would surely be the most fitting medium for all these afflictions, if the characters were younger and buffer, and the action spread out over two months rather than two hours – and if it were not for Letts’ leavening humor.
So why did August:Osage County work so well on stage? Perhaps much of it had to do with that humor — and a sense that Letts was playing games with the genre even as he hewed to its conventions. Maybe it was also, strangely, the set. The “opening up” that filmmakers always subject plays to works against August: Osage County. I’m sure we are meant to understand the characters better through the landscape – and I suppose it’s helpful to see a shot of a bank thermometer recording the temperature as 108 degrees. But on stage, there is only the interior of the Weston house – a mammoth set that allowed for some half dozen playing areas on three different levels, but one that paradoxically induced a feeling of claustrophobia. It also gave us a feeling of connection; we were sharing this space with these characters in real time — in a way trapped along with them in the overheated environment — and we were more able to get past the artificiality of the proceedings.
That the film of August: Osage County falls short of the play shouldn’t in theory matter to most moviegoers. Relatively few people saw the stage play, which debuted in Chicago and ran on Broadway from 2007 to 2009, followed by national tours and international productions. It’s possible that my personal disappointment at the film had to do with the high expectations set by the play, which left me dazzled, largely because of the performances. But won’t moviegoers have high expectations as well, because of the pedigree of the source and the quality of the cast?