August: Osage County
First screened in October 2013
Director: John Wells. Cast: Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Julianne Nicholson, Juliette Lewis, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Margo Martindale, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dermot Mulroney, Abigail Breslin, Sam Shepard, Misty Upham. Screenplay: Tracy Letts (based on his play).
Twitter Capsule: Enjoyable but rarely admirable beyond MVP actors. Script has great moments but smug calculations still rankle.

Photo © 2013 The Weinstein Company
The first question producer Jean Doumanian asked the audience at August: Osage County's pre-release screening at the Chicago Film Festival was, "How many of you saw the play's initial production here at the Steppenwolf?" She seemed surprised at the voluminous show of hands, but I wasn't. In fact, I was surprised at her surprise, mock though it may have been. I lived here already when August hit the boards and then during its triumphant ascension to Broadway. I myself managed to miss it at every turn, except on the page, but especially if you hang out with theater folks or with consistent patrons of the arts, or both, it's hard not to be reminded regularly of what an unimpeachable experience August apparently was on stage. The Windy City remains so proud to have produced this gruesome portrait of domestic-Midwestern rot, which is why Doumanian's next line of conversation struck me as off-key: she indicated that the creative team's first task lay in figuring out how to condense a three-hour dramatic saga into a two-hour film. You'd think such demonstrable regard for the play (would I say over-regard?) might assure producers that they needn't focus so quickly on gutting it. Still, the cheerfully flinty Doumanian was unrelenting. As the post-screening lights came up and she sauntered back on stage with supporting player Dermot Mulroney, she immediately posed the question, "So, did any of you even notice anything missing?" Clearly meant to be rhetorical, the inquiry generated only tepid applause, implying that, in fact, plenty of people had.

Or maybe they just felt like tepidly applauding. The film itself solicits that response, whether or not you know the source material, and regardless of some exemplary passages and performances. I'm torn about what to say: I liked the movie less than I'd hoped but nonetheless believe that it works better than bad post-Toronto buzz had implied. I wonder how many of its imputed "flaws" actually inhere in the play, despite its rapturous reception. Certainly I numbered among the large crowd who thought the producers whiffed in choosing John Wells to helm such a tony (and Tony-winning) property, but I also hoped that savvy recruits like Sin Nombre and Jane Eyre cinematographer Adriano Goldman, Traffic editor Stephen Mirrione, and Brokeback Mountain composer Gustavo Santaolalla might help raise the bar. Here, too, the truth lies in the middle. Wells confirms that he is no born cineaste but elicits some striking performances that often surprised me, even when I wasn't fully enamored or their payoffs weren't consistent. Goldman's images, by contrast, feel a bit hemmed-in by a black, brown, and gold palette—whether inspired by some imagined template of "American tragedy" or more directly informed by casket colors. He's able to vary that range in the exterior shots, but they all feel like they belong to a different movie, and the Oklahoma landscape never feels integrated as anything more than picturesque marginalia. Mirrione, despite helping to boost the actors' work, can't compensate for Wells' unimaginative angles and scene-constructions and can't conceal the palpable arrhythmia that has resulted from so much condensation.

The highest price for that approach gets paid near the end of the movie, when August enters a cataract of Big Moments, as if someone has rung an off-camera cow bell and everyone who's been slow-burning or waiting on the sidelines to that point—Chris Cooper, Margo Martindale, Juliette Lewis, Julianne Nicholson—comes running for their one big speech. Tracy Letts' notion of conflict suffers for such compression: he suddenly seems to describe a family that keeps slugging away at each other in abrupt, dramatic soliloquies, rather than a cancerous process of gradual infection and implacable truths. For actors like Lewis, who makes the unexpected and debatable choice to make youngest sister Karen a virtual punchline, it's hard to know whether the actress has just miscalculated (enjoyable and atypical as her comic impulses are) or if, in the producers' mania for concision, a more intricately structured character arc or more eclectic range of takes has been cast aside for blunter impact.

As I've said, though, the minute I start harmonizing with the glum tenor of the movie's reception (and one is already overhearing that the Weinsteins have second-guessed its mad rush into fall-festival season), I feel defensive on behalf of those elements in August that work well. Julia Roberts may not be the meticulous line-reader or prismatic psychologist that Amy Morton is, but she has found a great role for her bracing combination of intelligent disillusion, jaw-clenching sarcasm, comic flair, and a useful mean streak. Her performance is being praised as a change of pace, which I'm tempted to say is what happens when a reliable but uncharitably perceived performer finally gets noticed for doing something well that she's been doing well for a while. Closer, at least, totally prepares you for this performance, but her read on Barbara is still smart, even if she and the movie seem puzzled what to make of her by the finish. (Overdeliberate moments in the script, like having Barb look at herself in a mirror after another character has described her in bruising terms, don't help.) Wells, Goldman, and Sam Shepard conspire to make one of August's most plainly theatrical conceits—the direct-to-audience monologue that begins the play, by a character to whom we soon bid farewell—into a memorably unsettling prologue. The camera placement and slightly buggy lensing make this one of the few moments where August departs even minimally from a conservative, fourth-wall style, but it also doesn't feel out of keeping with the whole. The Johnna character still feels contrived to me: the work of a playwright who recognizes it's crappy to exclude any First Nations presence from an Oklahoma story but who hasn't thought of anything for her to do but be a near-wordless cook and maid. She intrudes even less in the film than in the play, for whatever that's worth.

You might also have heard that Meryl Streep is in this movie, and that some of us were dumb enough to begrudge her casting. I pined for some equally expert but more sporadically cast actress to get a turn here (Ellen Burstyn, aged down a bit? Joan Allen or Mary McDonnell, aged up?) and Streep hasn't made me uncurious as to how the part and the film would have worked with someone else in the central, vituperative role of Violet Weston. That said, she's dazzling to watch, marshaling her own intimidating reputation as an obvious device for unnerving and challenging her costars in character as Violet, but also accessing sulphurous anger in a way she seldom does. She doesn't call as much attention as she could to dropped words or slurred speech, even in a performance that's very ostentatious in other respects, and she's as transfixing as she's ever been in a monologue about a pair of boots. I've heard the work dinged as too broad—sometimes by people who lionize her in Julie & Julia, so go figure. As ever, she offers detailed work with voice, mien, and gesture that can re-routes the whole temperature of a scene on a dime, as is most obvious in the play's bravura dinner sequence that has been transplanted virtually without cuts into the movie's 20-minute centerpiece, a symphonic feat by every actor and artist involved—and, you would think, another sign that the best way to go with this text might have been to accommodate its extant tempos and preserve its well-honed edges.

Again, I'm not convinced August: Osage County was a masterpiece at Steppenwolf or on Broadway: it's awfully expository at the beginning and still has trouble finding its end. The movie magnifies both of those problems and creates other obstacles where it needn't have, and anyone hoping to see a film that seems propelled by its photography, its montage, its sound, or its score is bound to be disappointed. At times, the film approaches something like aimlessness: Streep bolts out into a field, Roberts chases her, the other actors hover around the car, as bewildered as we are, and Adriano Goldman can't do anything but make the pretty, golden sunset seem pretty and golden. But it's a movie worth sticking with through considerable ups and downs. As in the play, some of the film's parents have been too domineering (Weinstein, Doumanian) and others too diffident (Wells) but some members of the larger brood have bravely lunged at whatever opportunities remained open to them. Many at least make an acute impression while shouldering the collective misfortune that is a collapsing family, or a mediocre adaptation of potentially incisive material. Grade: C

Academy Award Nominations:
Best Actress: Meryl Streep
Best Supporting Actress: Julia Roberts

Golden Globe Nominations:
Best Actress (Musical/Comedy): Meryl Streep
Best Supporting Actress: Julia Roberts

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