Some years ago, an old friend challenged my assertion that movies were superior to plays because the camera’s wider “canvas” trumped the emotional intensity and immediacy of live performances on stage. He politely suggested I attend a specific play that challenged my point of view, in the process teaching me to be more circumspect in expressing my opinions. But it’s instructive to keep the inherent differences between these two art forms in mind when seeing films based on successful plays. That’s especially true of Tracey Lett’s adaptation of his own Pulitzer prize-winning Broadway hit, now brought to the big screen by director John Wells and a dozen highly recognizable Hollywood faces.
At age 48 Lett’s a bit of a late-bloomer as a playwright; he’s been acting (mainly in television) for nearly 25 years yet his only other play made into a film was last year’s Killer Joe, once again adapted by the playwright from his 1988 off-Broadway production of the same name. That movie featured a mordantly sickening performance by Matthew McConaughey as a small-town police officer obsessed with sex, power & fundamentalist religion, themes to which Letts returns here with more finesse.
August: Osage County covers much the same ground as Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf; both are replete with self-loathing characters skilled at lacerating those about them with painfully revealing insights. But whereas Albee employed a only 4 actors to engage in the verbal bloodletting, Letts provides a dysfunctional family of 11: Mom and Dad Weston (Meryl Streep, Sam Shepard) their three grown daughters (Julia Roberts, Juliette Lewis & Julianne Nicholson) one son-in-law (Ewan McGregor) another in training (Dermot Mulroney) a grand daughter (Abigail Breslin) and Streep’s sister (Margo Martindale) with her husband (Chris Cooper) and son (Benedict Cumberbatch). All gather at the Weston family manse in the vast expanse of Oklahoma’s prairie to attend a funeral that revives old animosities while initiating new ones, bringing new disclosures of long buried family secrets and leaving the entire assemblage more estranged than ever. It’s a bitter tale, with ew survivors, but no winners…
The cast performs admirably, punching and counter-punching with Lett’s profanity-laced dialogue, but after the first half hour or so of this verbal bludgeoning, I was once again reminded of the difficulties involved in transmitting a stage play to the screen, especially one based upon vitriolic dialogue. Hearing life-sized actors abuse each other on stage is one thing; seeing them do it when they’re on a movie screen 30 feet high and 70 feet wide becomes something else altogether. Everything gets magnified in film-making, calling to mind Eero Saarinen’s architectural edict “less is more”. That’s a dictum directors, screenwriters and actors should heed when involved in delivering on-screen shouting matches for an extended period of time.
Although Wells doesn’t employ his cameras to open up the storyline much beyond the confines of the Weston’s rambling home, that’s not to suggest Augustdoesn’t have any number of powerful scenes--but their overall effect produces a painfully minimal result. Since Lett’s dysfunctional family is pretty awful to begin with, watching them demonstrate it over and over again over a 2+ hour period causes the film to lag repeatedly, progressively lessening the impact of the plot’s disclosures. There’s a great deal of individual exposition contained in the interactions between the members of this cast-but precious little development of their respective characters. Martindale condescends, McGregor & Cumberbatch practice avoidance, Breslin exhibits surly rebellion and Mulroney loopy cluelessness. Robert’s furious confrontations with her mother and husband compare in bitterness and intensity with Streep’s imperious denigrations of her entire family; both elicit a range of predictable reactions (from avoidance to physical departure) so that by the time the closing credits role, the audience has been treated to a star-studded elaboration of the old adage that many families are dysfunctional, but each is dysfunctional in its own way.
Lett’s was born Tulsa and raised in Durant, a town of about 15,000 located in the southwestern part of Oklahoma. He captures the isolation of the plains along with the emphasis on family so prevalent in smaller American communities, especially those physically isolated from one another. I’m told that the playwright shortened the stage version of his work to conform to the conventions of a commercial movie and if true, that may explain why his characters so often seem one-dimensional. In the end, whether August is a mournful ode to the decline of the traditional American family or a diatribe about intergenerational power and its misuse will depend largely upon what point of view you bring to the theater - - what you get here are exposition and cleverly written lines, but little in the way of insight.
The Verdict? Despite its pedigree and fluid dialogue, this star-studded examination of familial relationships doesn’t really penetrate the surface of its characters.
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