Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: John Wells
Stars: Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Chris Cooper, Ewan McGregor, Benedict Cumberbatch, Margo Martindale, Sam Shepard, Dermot Mulroney, Juliette Lewis, Julianne Nicholson.
If two hours of watching a dysfunctional family yelling and tearing strips off each other is your thing, then this adaptation of Tracy Lett’s acclaimed drama August: Osage County will provide you with plenty of enjoyment. I saw the three-hour play staged by the Melbourne Theatre Company a couple of years ago, with Robyn Nevin in the role of the formidable foul-mouthed family matriarch, and was keen to see this filmed version. This darkly funny and arch tale of a dysfunctional family reunion and dirty secrets didn’t disappoint, as so many theatrical adaptations seem to do when translated to the screen.
The drama is set against the backdrop of rural Oklahoma during an unbearably hot and oppressive summer. When the troubled Weston family patriarch Beverly (a brief appearance from Sam Shepard), an alcoholic poet and academic who has not written anything of significance for decades, disappears the extended family gathers at the imposing family homestead. But when Beverly’s body is discovered, following a suspected suicide, the scene is set for some nasty revelations, resentments and recriminations to emerge.
Beverly’s monstrous wife Violet (a towering performance from Meryl Streep) is a caustic, pill popping harridan who is, ironically enough, suffering from mouth cancer. And as the family gather around the table for lunch following the funeral, hostilities begin as the sharp tongued Violet begins unloading on her daughters. The main target for her acrimonious outburst and bile is oldest daughter Barbara (Julia Roberts), who left Oklahoma a long time ago and didn’t return when Violet was initially diagnosed with cancer. Barbara’s own marriage to Bill (Ewan McGregor) is in trouble.
But Violet also sets her sights on her flighty daughter Karen (Juliette Lewis) who has become engaged to sleazy Florida-based yuppie businessman (Dermot Mulroney) and Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), the mousy daughter who has remained close to home. Also caught up in the dynamics of the family squabbles are Violet’s shrewish sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale) and her patient, gentle but henpecked husband Charlie (Chris Cooper), and their rather awkward timid son little Charlie (the very busy Benedict Cumberbatch), who is a bitter disappointment to his mother.
This searing drama from playwright Tracy Letts owes a clear debt to the Gothic southern plays of Tennessee Williams (Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, etc), via Edward Albee’s lacerating Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?, with its theatrical device of a dysfunctional family reunion in which everybody verbally tears shreds off each other as they drag old skeletons, guilty secrets and dirty linen out of the closet. Tears will be shed, relationships will be tested, plates will be smashed, and vitriol spewed.
This is a faithful rendering of the Tony and Pulitzer award winning drama, as Letts has adapted his stage play for the screen. Letts has a fairly misanthropic outlook as reflected in this vicious black comedy and his bleak and subversive crime drama Killer Joe and their corrosive insights into human nature. The dialogue is vicious and dripping with venom, delivered with relish by the superb ensemble cast, but it makes for uncomfortable viewing at times.
The fireworks and confrontations between Streep and Roberts are fascinating to watch and are a showcase for their scenery chewing talents. This is a change of pace for Roberts, who is often stuck in sweet romantic dramas or lightweight comedies, but here she plays a hard as nails woman driven by years of frustration and anger and sense of failure, who is forced to confront some ugly family secrets. Her powerful and emotional performance more than matches the histrionics from the dual Oscar winning Streep who has the showiest role. For her part Streep is superb as the unapologetically acerbic Violet who swears like a trooper and has a prodigious capacity for cruelty, but she also manages to peel back the layers of her character and brings an unexpected vulnerability to her performance.
Cooper brings a quiet dignity to his performance and he gets one marvelous scene when he tries to address the hatred and bitterness tearing the family apart.
For much of the time the drama cannot escape the limitations of its theatrical origins, with many of the scenes taking place inside the claustrophobic and suffocating Weston house. The director is John Wells (a veteran of television dramas like ER and The West Wing, who made his feature film debut with The Company Men), whose handling of the material is workmanlike, without many visual or stylistic flourishes. He gives each actor within the ensemble their moment to shine. It would have been interesting to see what a filmmaker of the calibre of William Friedkin (who directed the fantastic screen adaptation of Killer Joe) would have done with the material.
But in a concession to the screen, Wells has opened up some scenes, moving them out of the confines of the Weston house. Cinematographer Adriano Goldman (Jane Eyre, Conviction, etc) captures some of the flat, open and endless landscapes of the Oklahoma setting, which gives the film a visual beauty that contrasts with the drabness and dark hues of the interiors and the ugliness of the human interaction.
This fiery and overwrought drama about a toxic family driven by hate and resentments and their grubby little secrets is driven by a couple of sensational powerhouse performances and some wonderfully arch dialogue. And while it doesn’t completely escape its theatrical origins it does provide an entertaining couple of hours at the cinema.