Day 272: August: Osage County

"Thank God we can't tell the future. We'd never get out of bed."
Playwright Tracy Letts gained a modicum of notoriety for his first few plays including Killer Joe and Bug (both of which have been turned into films by director William Friedkin). It was his 2007 Pulitzer Prize winning play August: Osage County that skyrocketed him to the upper echelon of contemporary playwrights, particularly here in Chicago where he's worked on and off with Steppenwolf Theatre almost since its inception. A film version of August: Osage County presented numerous challenges to whomever decided to film it, seeing as how the entire show takes place in one three-story house, but hopes were high when it was announced that Letts himself would handle adaptation duties, as he did for the previous adaptations of his work. So how did he fare? Read on to find out...
Poet and teacher Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard) disappears from his home in Osage County, Oklahoma, prompting his cancer-stricken wife Violet (Meryl Streep) to call her family back home in hopes of finding him. Sisters Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) and Barbara (Julia Roberts) arrive first, the latter with her daughter (Abigail Breslin) and estranged husband (Ewan McGregor) in tow, followed shortly by Violet's sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale) and her husband Charles (Chris Cooper). Tensions are high from minute one due to Violet's current state which is heightened by her chemotherapy treatments and litany of prescription drugs she's taking to ease her suffering.
Beverly's body is found dead in his boat, bringing Ivy and Barbara's sister Karen (Juliette Lewis) and her fiance Steve (Dermot Mulroney) to town, as well as Mattie Fae and Charles' son Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch), gathering the entire extended family for the first time in years. Old secrets are exposed and dragged through the mud, as everyone has something to hide, and no one seems to be able to get anything past Violet, whose venom is as potent as ever despite her failing health. As the days drag on, they are all forced to confront the issues plaguing them, whether they want to or not.
The biggest problem with August: Osage County is that it feels like a film more produced into existence than directed. It fails to have a strong identity at its core, mainly due to the almost lackadaisical direction from veteran television director John Wells, a man with only one feature credit to his name. He seems to just sort of turn the camera on and allow the actors to do the work for him, and though every single performance is very good and the script is as sharp as it was on stage, it fails to make much impact as a film because it feels too much like a ship without a captain. It's wholly reminiscent of a similarly wayward film, Shakespeare in Love, that was overrated due to a great script and cast. Though Bug and Killer Joe are not likely to top anyone's list of their favorite films, they stand out because their fantastic scripts are met beat for beat with the firm hand of a director rejuvenated by great material. 
The decision to open up the world of the play and set a number of sequences away from the Weston homestead proves to be a mixed blessing. Though some scenes like a trip to the liquor store and a doctor's office make the film come alive, other scenes like an impromptu chase through a field as well as the final scene of the film reek of an inauthenticity that the rest of the film admirably shirks. Again, I lay most of this at the feet of Wells who fails to do anything interesting with these scenes, along with a downright maudlin score by Brokeback Mountain composer Gustavo Santaolalla. For a film that crackles with tension when it's forced to focus on some dynamite dialogue exchanges set inside the home, these scenes are burdened by a gloss of the prototypical Hollywood awards bait veneer that executive producers Harvey and Bob Weinstein bring to the very worst of their films. 
The performances, however, elevate the otherwise shoddy craftsmanship on display around them, and will likely cure these multitude of sins for the average filmgoer. Meryl Streep proves once again why she is perhaps the greatest screen actress of her generation with a performance that holds nothing back and screams to the back row of the balcony. She does some of her best work in this film, thanks in no small part to a character that is so well written and realized by Letts. Julia Roberts also turns in a performance that shows why she became a movie star in the first place. Devoid of any vanity, she manages to create a finely tuned character that is better than almost the whole of her career combined. In a cast full of standout performances, they manage to shine the brightest.
The rest of the ensemble is fantastic as well, with Margo Martindale, Chris Cooper and Julianne Nicholson being the other standouts. Make no mistake, however, there is not a mediocre performance to be found here, and everyone does a fantastic job with an excellent script. Letts is a savvy enough writer to know what works best on film, and pares down his sprawling stage play into a lean two hour film that only drags because of the lack of momentum created by the director. It's not hard to imagine how incredibly satisfying the entire film could have been had someone like William Friedkin directed it, particularly with his predilection for pushing actors to their breaking point.   
Stronger direction could have pushed this film into the stratosphere, but as it stands now, it feels like a film that wants to be great and does its damnedest to make you think it's great, but doesn't rise to the level of its actors or its script. It's a lifeless film that flounders because it has no spark to it and nothing for an audience to cling to. A cheap camcorder bootleg of the original stage production would likely seem like a more vibrant film than this one does, and that's a real shame because it's got an amazing script and some ace performances. It's a true testament to the power of great casting that this film manages to be as good as it is, because it works almost wholly in spite of its director.

GO Rating: 3/5

[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]