By Ross Miller
There are two types of approaches when adapting a play for the big-screen; you can take the original material and run with it, expanding the setting and themes onto a broader cinematic canvas (e.g. War Horse). Or you can basically make a straight-up, minimal location filmed version of the play. August: Osage County takes the latter road for a clearly Oscar-bait but nevertheless impassioned drama about family dysfunction.
Adapted for the screen by Tracy Letts from his Pulitzer Prize-winning play, the story centres on the various relations – mothers, fathers, sisters, uncles and cousins – of the Weston family, who come together after an important family member tragically dies. During the few days together new light is shed on old situations and dark secrets come bubbling to the surface.
August: Osage County could perhaps best be described as a sort of claustrophobic examination of what holds together, and indeed pulls apart, a family who are all at different stages in their life, emotionally as much as generationally. You can debate the merit of the histrionics – this is a very showy movie where actors try to outdo one another in the over-the-top, home truth-filled vengeful put-down department – but there’s no doubting that it’s an impressive showcase for some wonderful actors to let loose and, particularly in the case of Julia Roberts, show an un-glamorous side to a usually shiny Hollywood persona.
The cast is what helps to make it work, from Meryl Streep chewing the scenery like it’s going out of fashion as the unhinged, cancer-stricken, pill-popping head of the family and the aforementioned Roberts (both of whom have received an Oscar nomination for their respective performances) to the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch, Chris Cooper and Margo Martindale who all feel very much perfectly cast when casting is so important for a film like this. The only wrong note casting-wise appears to be Ewan McGregor, who isn’t necessarily bad but slightly out of place in the role of Roberts’ soon to be ex husband getting increasingly fed up with the “mad house” into which she’s dragged their impressionable daughter (Abigail Breslin).
The film sidesteps a pitfall into which a lot of these type of ensemble movies fall in that none of the characters ever feel one-dimensional. Each of them have their own little journey that mingles beautifully with everyone else’s, leaving you satisfied with just about every one of the arcs – with the exception of a somewhat misjudged subplot involving Juliette Lewis’ Karen and what her fiancée (Dermot Mulroney) might really be up to – and never feeling short-changed in any way. The dialogue crackles as much as it runs deep; there’s almost a perverse sort of entertainment in witnessing a conversation turn into a heated argument before an explosion of hate, or in one case, violence. The film wears its histrionics like a badge of honour and be damned with anyone who doesn’t like it.
This star-studded melodrama works on the strength of its cast and the always emotional, frequently hilarious and often achingly truthful screenplay by Letts. As he has already shown with the likes of Killer Joe and Bug (both of which were also plays), he’s a master of close-quarter antagonism and making what are essentially unlikeable characters somehow watchable. Even if you don’t particularly see people from your own family in them, you can certainly relate to some of what they’re going through and with this type of potentially manipulative and unconvincing film that’s certainly nothing to be sniffed at.
This review was previously published on Thoughts On Film.