Meryl Streep as Violet Weston
Julia Roberts as Barbara (Weston) Fordham
Ewan McGregor as Bill Fordham
Chris Cooper as Charles Aiken
Abigail Breslin as Jean Fordham
Benedict Cumberbatch as “Little” Charles Aiken
Juliette Lewis as Karen Weston
Margo Martindale as Mattie Fae Aiken
Dermot Mulroney as Steve Heidebrecht
Julianne Nicholson as Ivy Weston
Sam Shepard as Beverly Weston
Misty Upham as Johnna Monevata
Directed by John Wells
Despite a first-rate cast, an experienced director and the original playwright adapting his own Pulitzer Prize winning drama, the big screen version of Tracy Letts’ “August: Osage County” is less of a reveille of down-home dysfunction and more of an overwrought melodrama centering around a woman so boorish you wouldn’t want to spend two minutes, let alone two hours, with her.
Said boor is Violet (Streep), the matriarch of an Oklahoma family which mostly tries to stay as far away from her as possible. She’s also the wife of Beverly (Shepherd), a celebrated poet and admitted alcoholic who disappears one summer’s day, bringing the clans scattered daughters (and families in tow) back from the four corners of the States to take care of Violet and wait to hear the worst about Beverly.
That said, a lot of what made Letts’ play work in the first place is still extant, from the sparkling dialogue to the frequent bouts of wit and when left to flourish, the result is the sort of drama you hope for out of these kinds of adaptations. Most of that is in the little moments, be it Beverly’s rambling job interview/monologue or the odd glimpses of weakened affection between Bill and Barbara which tell us everything we need to know about these people without useless, endless exposition. It is the little things that make up life in much of Letts’ world and he strives to remind us without forcing it, and frequently succeeds. Cooper, Nicholson and Cumberbatch are particular delights in a supporting cast which works over time to make as much as hay as it can for as long as the sun comes out from Streep and Roberts’ shadow.
That doesn’t happen for very long, however, and it is their uneven performances–which range from the sublime to the ludicrous–that bring “August’s” good portions back to Earth. Most of that anchor belongs to Streep, who lets the ridiculousness of Violet’s excess give her leave to undo all restraint. A lifelong drug addict, in part at least due to her difficult upbringing, Violet is a truthteller’ who gets off on pushing other people’s buttons until they have no recourse but to tackle her to the ground. Playing a naturally unlikable character is a difficult thing, one a less experienced actress might approach with roof-raising and scenery-chewing, leaving an audience very little to grab a hold of (or want to). It’s a doubly unfortunate, then, to see an actress of Streep’s caliber keep choosing eye-rolling and ceiling-rattling. Part of it is to counterpoint her more lucid moment of course, but even those tend to be filled with such bile (albeit of a quieter sort) that you just want to leave the theater whenever she starts talking.
She’s not entirely alone in that, nor does she go down that road on her own, but in perfect keeping with the film director John Wells has put together which seems far more interested in histrionics than attracting our interest. The idea of course is that the children will forever pay for the sins of the parents by gradually turning into them whether they like it or not; a truth so universal we’ve only had a few million books, plays and films about it. Whatever new bits Letts originally brought to this old idea have been drained to make room for more screeching. For all the quality of the quiet moments, any chance to have the family blow up in some “Ordinary People” style dysfunction is played to the hilt. The first time family members start threatening bodily harm against one another is perfectly enjoyable–that’s probably why they put it on the poster–but by the third and fourth time it gets to be old hat. Then the hat gets beaten with a shovel and shot. The thing is Wells isn’t a bad director; he plays the small moments with such a light touch it makes the decisions on what to do with the big moments so frustrating.
Maybe it’s because there have been so many films about dysfunctional families, or maybe because it’s difficult to care about an unlikable character and the cast and crew can’t figure out how to make it work this time, “August” is just another one of an ocean of mediocre soap operas.