Monday, January 13, 2014

August: Osage County

Grade: 36/C-

It’s disheartening to see the best play of the past decade neutered. August: Osage County is the third adaptation of Tracy Letts’s work after Bug and Killer Joe, and the first unsuccessful one. All three are darkly funny works, with August in particular standing out as a cutting look at a deeply unhappy family, all filled with bitterness and rage towards each other and secrets they can’t keep. But the film of August is uncomfortable with Letts’s nastiness, and it undercuts the material at every turn.

The film follows the Weston family after the disappearance of alcoholic patriarch Beverly (Sam Shepard), leaving behind his pill-popping, cancer-stricken wife Violet (Meryl Streep). Violet’s daughters return to deal with their acidic mother. They are: Barbara (Julia Roberts), who’s dealing with her moody teenage daughter (Abigail Breslin) and philandering husband (Ewan McGregor); Karen (Juliette Lewis), who brings home her sleazy fiancé Steve (Dermot Mulroney); and Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), who’s in love with her cousin “Little” Charles Aiken (Benedict Cumberbatch).

It’s quite a cast, but not all of them are suited for their roles. Cumberbatch and McGregor are skillful actors, but the former exudes too much intelligence to pass as kindhearted simpleton Charles. Whether he stresses about oversleeping and missing his uncle’s funeral, or sings a simple, joyful song to his beloved cousin/lover, there’s always a sense of discomfort in the actor, as if he knows he’s been miscast and is acting as hard as he can to make up for it. McGregor, meanwhile, stifles his considerable charm to play Bill as a particularly dull milquetoast. His arguments with Roberts come off as hopelessly unbalanced, as he’s given no real fire or passion for his own beliefs and needs.

Most of the American actors fare better, with Margot Martindale and Chris Cooper making for a spirited yin-yang as Charles’ impatient mother and eternally patient father, and Lewis perfectly cast as the naïve Karen. Nicholson is particularly strong as Ivy, the most decent and vulnerable of the sisters. She’s the quietest person in the film because she’s had to put up with her mean-spirited mother, her equally acerbic oldest sister, and her flighty younger sister, and has learned to hide her feelings because of it.

But the group never feels fully connected, let alone related.  There’s an hour of material cut from the play for the screen, which simplifies a number of the relationships. It also slackens the pace, chopping up out a well thought out structure into a bizarrely arrhythmic, constantly shifting piece in which most of the much-needed transitional scenes have been axed. Instead of a portrait of a crumbling family, it feels like a number of Oscar clips that inelegantly move their characters in and out as needed.

Those clips are mostly there to serve the star turns of Streep and Roberts. Both are fine, but neither take naturally to Letts’s acridity – they’re acting well enough, but they’re clearly acting. Roberts gets Barbara’s exhaustion and measured impatience, but she has an innate warmth to her personality that makes Barbara’s biggest emotional outburst halfway through the film feel false. Streep, meanwhile, comes closer to escaping caricature than she has in years, grounding her often annoying tics in deep sadness. But she has the same problem she here that she had in Doubt: no matter how despicable her character’s behavior might be, she also tries to ingratiate herself to the audience, which greatly softens her Violet’s harshness. Her character is supposed to be dark comedy funny, not romcom villain funny.

It isn’t as if Letts is unadaptable: William Friedkin brought out the claustrophobic tension of Bug and Killer Joe. But director John Wells has no eye for composition, no sense of cinematic rhythm, no clue that the camera should be used as anything other than a tool to point at actor. August requires a Friedkin, or a Sidney Lumet, or an Elia Kazan – anyone with formal skill – to make it more than an actor’s showcase, which is what Wells, with his total lack of imagination and borderline inept shot-reverse shot rhythms, does not have. From the beginning, the film is distinguished only by dull prestige sheen and a drippy Gustavo Santaolalla score, both of which downplay the text’s bitterness. Wells noted that he wasn’t a fan of the film’s compromised ending, but the film he made is more in keeping with that cop-out than anything Letts wrote.

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