Barbara Weston: Thank God we can’t tell the future or we’d never get out of bed.
Webster’s should redefine the word “ensemble” as the cast of AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY. This is not only an impressive line up but, over the course of two hours, these folks will school you on exactly how its done. Led by Meryl Streep, in yet another staggering performance of grand proportion, and Julia Roberts, in certainly one of her strongest turns, Tracy Letts’s Pulitzer-prize winning play gets the biggest of screen treatments one can imagine. (The cast also includes Ewan McGregor, Dylan McDermott, Chris Cooper, Margo Martindale, Juliette Lewis, Julianne Nicholson, Abigail Breslin and Benedict Cumberbatch.) When you pair down from a three-hour plus play to a two-hour film though, subtlety and breathing room are the first things to go, even when the playwright himself is the man writing the screenplay. And this story needs its time to breathe.
Streep plays Violet Weston, the matriarch of an Oklahoma family that includes three daughters, their significant others and offspring, and an aunt and an uncle to fill in the gaps. At the onset of the film, Violet learns that her husband of many years (Sam Shepard) has drowned himself after disappearing for a few days. The entire family comes in for the funeral and finds that the grief they end up getting isn’t at all what they were expecting. Violet is something of a vile person. Her misery, stemming from years of disappointment, a horrible upbringing and now, cancer of the mouth, has led her to a serious pain killer addiction and an uncontrollable need to tell everyone around her exactly what she’s thinking, what she calls “truth telling”. Of course, no one really enjoys hearing the truth, especially when it is as difficult as this to hear, and when it is delivered with such spite, but not dealing with the truth is what has made the Weston family what they are. Between the funeral and the sweltering heat, it is no surprise that everything boils over before too long.
Without the extra time to allow for the family secrets to simmer beforehand, director, John Wells (THE COMPANY MEN) has to get straight to the point. There are so many family dynamics at play here, from sibling rivalry to parent/child issues to husbands and wives, and Wells uses clear, concise signifiers to inform the audience of the bare minimum of information they need to get where all this animosity is coming from. The actors take it from there, and they take it as far as they can, but the darkly humourous text is reduced to scene after scene of melodrama with very little opportunity to catch your breath. Albeit wickedly biting at times, the lack of quiet never allows for the viewer to let it all sink in and truly feel how much pain is being felt on screen. In the end, AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY is a good effort, even great in moments, but never nearly as superb as its pedigree should have allowed for.