January 30, 2014

A Family Even Crazier Than Yours

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By MARK DISTEFANO

August: Osage County demonstrates some of the differences between producing a story on stage and presenting that same story as a movie. The film retains many of the good qualities of Tracy Lett’s excellent play, namely the sardonic, cutting lines of dialogue, and transfers them well into the screenplay format. The cast is a stellar roster of actors, including Sam Shepard, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Julia Roberts, Benedict Cumberbatch, Juliette Lewis and Oscar-goddess Meryl Streep. The acting in this movie is never a shortcoming; each of these performers has a great time roiling up the scenery in their roles. The movie’s main problem lies in its repetitiveness.

It is a movie about one of the most dysfunctional middle-American families you could ever care to witness on screen, and yet it doesn’t seem to veer too far from events you may have glimpsed in your own household. After Beverly (Shepherd), the husband of Violet (Streep) and father of Barbara (Roberts), Ivey (Julianne Nicholson) and Karen (Lewis), commits suicide, an unwanted family reunion that should never have taken place is set in motion. They all dispatch themselves to Osage County, Oklahoma, in the sweltering 108 degree heat of the summer, to exchange goodwill about a man some of them hated. Instead, they end up releasing a thousand repressed ill feelings. Family members tackle each other to the ground, spew invective at each other and clamp their mouths shut to prevent a whirlwind of disturbing secrets from escaping.

The three-hour Broadway show is condensed into a two-hour movie. This makes for one too many family secrets and one too many reversals of fortune to fit into a run-time of that length. Furthermore, John Wells is a capable and apt director, but nothing about his staging or camerawork seems to be genuinely inspired. That’s not to indict him, as some other critics have, for his handling of the material, but the quiet calmness with which he observes this family of crazy people seems to be at odds with their personalities.

Two years ago, William Friedkin directed a film adaptation of another Tracy Letts play, Killer Joe, in which Friedkin’s kinetic energy and exuberant taste for lurid detail was married perfectly with Letts’ dark satire.

I had hoped to see a similar kind of fusion in Osage County. There was a kind of horrific comedy to Killer Joe, a brand of humor that steps above black Coen brothers-esque comedy and enters the realm of Clockwork Orange territory. The abhorrent practices going on in Killer Joe were enjoyable not because they often had you busting a gut, but because the characters engaging in them were having so much fun, they became fun to watch.

In Osage County, although I laughed out loud more than once, a significant amount of the humorous dimension seems to have been lost. There were many more chances for Wells to direct his actors to go for the ridiculous elements of the story instead of the tragic ones. The tone of this film seems far more serious than the wealth of graveyard humor Letts imbued his play with. The last of the film’s many fights, for example, has the potential to be hilarious in a way, due to the cretinous nature of one of the characters, who covers herself with the line, “Well, I suppose hindsight is always 20-20, isn’t it?”

I enjoyed over three-quarters of this movie immensely, even as a more severe character study, it works phenomenally well on the strength of Letts’ script and the sprawling bunch of talented performers. Nearly every one of them is compelling in their own way, from Meryl Streep’s viciously contentious matriarch, to Julia Roberts’ equally vicious eldest daughter, to Chris Cooper’s touching, fierce father figure, to Juliette Lewis’ cutely naive aunt. This is truly an actor’s movie and the cast does a stellar job, especially in the long, protracted funeral dinner set piece.

It was only when the story wound its way to the end, and after one spot-on hysterical moment when Roberts, Streep, and Nicholson hurl plates at the floor while having a shouting match, that the movie went limp. The red-hot, rapid-fire exchanges between the film’s many actors is its primary source of energy, and with many of them out of the picture, things fizzled out. I was left with a slightly sour taste in my mouth, after being riveted for an hour and forty-five minutes. Most great movies have their weak points, and  August:Osage County is no exception, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth the trip to the theater. You may be surprised at how much of your own family you see.

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