If you saw August: Osage County—Tracy Letts’s Pulitzer Prize–winning play about a spectacularly dysfunctional Oklahoma family, which premiered at Steppenwolf in 2007—you’re no doubt eagerly anticipating the movie version. The film, in theatres this month, has everything going for it: a cast studded with Oscar winners (Meryl Streep! Julia Roberts!), a director known for his outstanding TV work (John Wells), and a screenplay by Letts himself.
Originally directed by Anna Shapiro, Steppenwolf’s nearly flawless production went on to Broadway and scooped up five Tonys. No wonder: August is a harrowing, savagely funny drama that combines the gleeful nastiness of Letts’s early work (Killer Joe and Bug) with the sense of Midwestern despair in his other plays (Man from Nebraska, Superior Donuts).
The movie, like the play, begins with the sudden disappearance of poet Beverly Weston (Sam Shephard). He leaves behind his foulmouthed, pill-popping, cancer-stricken wife, Violet (Meryl Streep). In the wake of the crisis, the couple’s three adult daughters—Barbara (Julia Roberts), Ivy (Boardwalk Empire’s Julianne Nicholson), and Karen (Juliette Lewis)—descend on the family manse. (Other leads include Ewan McGregor, Dermot Mulroney, and Benedict Cumberbatch of The Fifth Estate.) Each of the daughters, it turns out, harbors a devastating secret.
Shot on location in northeastern Oklahoma, the film offers little connection to the barren Middle American expanses that have shaped the embittered Weston family (one character calls the Plains a “spiritual affliction, like the blues”). Aside from some gratuitous shots of wide-open spaces, nearly every scene unfolds in the dark, dreary Weston home. While Wells may be trying to emulate the atmosphere so beautifully captured in Shapiro’s stage production, onscreen the setting feels stilted and pallid.
As if determined to keep things lively, Letts has shaved about an hour off the original three-hour running time while doing his darnedest to squeeze in all the major plot points and best lines (including “Why don’t you go fuck a fucking sow’s ass?”). In contrast to the film’s drab visuals, this pace keeps the characters in a near-perpetual tizzy, leaving them, and viewers, little time to catch a breath.
Even more disappointing, neither Wells nor his experienced cast does much in the way of modulating the performances to accommodate the nearness of the camera. The least subtle actor, believe it or not, is Streep. Her Violet is a coarse and cartoonish gorgon, funny and flamboyant but too artificial to be genuinely scary. (She could take a lesson from Steppenwolf’s formidable Deanna Dunagan, who did Violet’s raging Clytemnestra on the Plains routine while finding something pitiable and desperate within.)
Roberts delivers a less campy performance. Sure, she screams along with the rest of them, conveying a degree of anger that’s a far cry from her usual catalog of romantic leads, but as Barbara she also shows vulnerability and restraint. When she realizes she’s lost her husband (McGregor) for good, Barbara doesn’t rail at him. Instead, she asks him in a flat, matter-of-fact tone, “You’re never coming back to me, are you, Bill?” It’s only when he walks away that she breaks down, resigning herself to a tangle of hurt and loss.
But Nicholson is the standout. As Ivy, she conveys reservoirs of hope and resilience beneath a mild-mannered surface. Though her demureness can initially be mistaken for doormat-hood, when Ivy realizes her dreams of escaping her family are thwarted, she crumples. Here, Nicholson’s subtle performance is far more affecting than the histrionics on display elsewhere.
Even in the movie’s best moments, though, the plot seems to unfold at an ironic distance rather than bowling you over as it did on the stage. For all the big acting on display, August: Osage County feels oddly small.