For those of you who saw writer Tracy Letts' Pulitzer Prize-winning play either at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre or on Broadway, where it won a boatload of Tony Awards in 2008, I'm sure this simple, two-hour film version (also written by Letts), directed by John Wells (THE COMPANY MEN), will seem like a lesser thing, or at least a different thing than its nearly three-hour source material. For the rest of us, I suppose your level of enjoyment of AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY will depend on how much family strife and cruelty you find amusing.
The Weston clan is brought back together to Oklahoma when its patriarch, Beverly (Sam Shepard), apparently kills himself after arranging for a full-time-care person for his drug-addicted wife, Violet (Meryl Streep), who seems to be in a constant state of drifting in and out of delusional episodes, spinning wild yarns about every member of her extended family, revealing deeply held secrets and just being generally nasty. Of her three grown daughters—Barbara (Julia Roberts), Karen (Juliette Lewis) and Ivy (Julianne Nicholson)—only Barbara is married (to Bill, played by Ewan McGregor), but is on the verge of divorce. Karen is the flighty, perpetually optimistic one who dresses a little too young for her age and dates terrible men, such as the womanizing Steve (Dermot Mulroney), who is just low enough to hit on Barbara's young daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin). Ivy is the one who stayed close to home, and is well on her way to being a spinster, were it not for a newfound love with an unlikely person in her life.
Also close by is Violet's sister Mattie Fae (the incomparable Margo Martindale), her sensible husband Charlie (Chris Cooper), and their son "Little Charles" (Benedict Cumberbach), something of a pertetual loser in all aspects of life. For two hours, we watch this family come together, fall apart, form splinter groups of power, only to watch them disintegrate as quickly as they came together. And all the while, Violet insists she knows all the secrets and parcels them out like so much candy to children, although occasionally she dumps the whole candy bowl onto the floor to watch the children scramble and fight for scraps. It's an endlessly fascinating adventure, spearheaded by Streep, who maneuvers through each scene like a hopped-up bear in a chandelier factory.
In a film with a cast this size, it very often depends on what individual audience members bring to the film to determine which character they identify with. Most will likely focus on Cooper's level-headed Charlie, who delivers an ultimatum to his wife about being kind to people late in the film that resonates so clearly that we can't help but wonder why no one said such a thing decades earlier and saved the family a whole lot of pain and suffering. Then of course, we wouldn't have the play or movie either, and those are way more fun than a story about a happy family.
A great deal of the criticism I'm hearing about the film from those who loved the play is that much of the drama has been excised, allowing the dark humor to come to the foreground, resulting in something more like an evil sitcom than a heightened gothic drama. While the film has plenty of laughs at the expense of virtually every family member, I don't agree that AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY is void of hard-hitting drama either. I was especially moved by the plight of Nicholson's Ivy character, who is painted with muted, unfocused edges, as if no one in her life sees her as a complete person outside of her duties to her mother. This new relationship is poised to be the thing that finally defines her, so when it appears to be in jeopardy, her very being is in danger of crumbling to dust.
I also liked what Julia Roberts is doing here. We get a sense that when she's not around her mother, she's probably a very nice person who just happens to be dealing with a cheating husband and resentful daughter. I'm pretty certain we don't see her million-dollar smile once in this film, and it's nice to see her not relying on her old tricks to make us care about her situation. The verbal jabs she trades with Violet leave bruises, and we crave any information about what life must have been like growing up in a household with so much vitriol.
As both a complement and criticism of AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY, I would have been perfectly happy existing with this family for another 30-45 minutes. It's almost a shame that we get cut off at the two-hour mark. Would I have enjoyed more drama? Sure, but what's here is still pretty manageable as a film that isn't afraid to mix the nasty and sad. The biggest problem with the film may be director Wells' lack of any real style; he doesn't shoot it as a play, no, but his lack of any real visual quality makes the whole thing feel like a made-for-TV (not even HBO quality) movie that's about getting it done as quickly as possible so the actors can get back to bigger jobs. It's a close call, and I'm still mildly recommending it, especially to those whose judgement isn't clouded by having seen the play. Faint praise, I realize, but there's enough here to appreciate—if not quite admire—to check it out.