August: Osage County is the film adaption of the Pulitzer Prize and Tony winning play by Tracy Letts. I saw the Broadway production and at three hours (with two intermissions) it was riveting and immensely entertaining.  The filmmakers, including Letts who wrote the screenplay have cut the film’s length to two hours.  This truncation has many people sighing relief; as it is clear three hours of this horribly dysfunctional family yelling and degrading each other would be just too much.  However, because the story has been shortened it sometimes feels like there are transitions and moments missing between the surprises, shocks and ghastly revelations. Perhaps the problem isn’t just that the story has been shortened, but perhaps August: Osage County should have just stayed on the stage where it belonged.

Plays typically do not make good films because theater is about language and film is about images.  Plays typically have long scenes and films have short scenes.  Plot is propelled by dialogue in plays and by action in films. Plays have long speeches and films have snappy quick dialogue.  This aside, there have been some great movies made from plays in the past, and this film gets an A for effort, but it just doesn’t pack the power of the stage production.

When poet and scholar Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard) disappears form his rural Oklahoma home the family descends to wait out the crisis and verdict. The 14 cast ensemble is loaded with Hollywood thespians that have Oscars, Oscar nominations and generally stellar reputations as very good actors.  Meryl Streep received her record 18th nomination for playing the drug addicted, venomous, mother from hell Violet Weston.  I am a huge Streep fan, but this is not one of her best performances. It is not because she is afraid to make big choices, but there is something about her performance that just doesn’t feel complete, or gel.  She has brilliant moments and great moments of lucidity, but her performance teeters very close to caricature.

 

Contrarily, I am not a big Julia Roberts fan but her take on Barbara Weston- Fordham, is well controlled and she is a revelation as the embittered, cynical, resentful eldest daughter.  Cast against type, Roberts surprises with the rage that simmers just under the surface. However both of these performances are not as good as the less famous Margo Martindale’s turn as Violet’s sister Mattie Fae Aiken.  Bawdy, vicious, yet vulnerable, Martindale’s presence never feels theatrical or sketchy.  She looks like she belongs in rural Oklahoma and appears perfectly normal on the outside, even though she holds many secrets that can affect and destroy her own family’s lives.

 

Full of plot, truth telling, family fights, recriminations, deep dark secrets and the underside of human behavior, August: Osage County was a great ride on Broadway, but it is less successful on the screen. It is well acted and entertaining, but it never overcomes its talky roots and loses its emotional claustrophobic impact by expanding its canvas.  It is also littered with the most unlikeable characters I have seen in a long time, finding empathy for even the more scrupulous characters is difficult as they are the weakest characters in the film.