Review: Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep try hard but ‘August: Osage County’ falls flat

TORONTO – Tracy Letts has had three of his plays adapted to film now, and I think based on the evidence of the latest, “August: Osage County,” it is safe to say that William Friedkin has a far better handle on how to handle his scripts than John Wells does. Both “Bug” and “Killer Joe” are sweaty, upsetting movies that put us face to face with unsettling characters in dire circumstance, and both films have a jangling nervous energy to them that seems perfectly in sync with what Letts does on the page. Considering the stage version of “August: Osage County” won Letts a Pulitzer, it would not be outrageous to suggest that this arrives on movie screens with more expectations than the other two films, and that perhaps it is precisely because of those expectations that the end result feels like a disappointment.

In the film’s opening moments, a beautifully cast Sam Shepard plays Bev Weston, the patriarch of a largely-absent family, and he talks about the truce he has made with his wife Violet (Meryl Streep). She takes pills, and he drinks, and the two of them leave each other alone about their vices. It seems like an uneasy peace, though, and as he talks more about his wife and her habits, we see that he’s interviewing a Native American girl named Johnna (Misty Upham) about becoming their housekeeper.

Violet makes her grand entrance near the end of the conversation, and it’s a shocking first appearance for Streep because she looks old in a way we’ve never seen from her on film before. Within a few minutes of that first appearance, she’s managed to offend Johnna, embarrass Bev, and reveal herself as barely coherent. It’s Shepard’s only scene in the film, and it’s more reaction than anything else. Watching him watch his wife, it’s hard not to be affected. It’s also probably my favorite scene in the film. So much is said in such a simple few moments, and it sums up this entire marriage in a matter of moments.

When Bev goes missing soon afterwards, the calls go out to her adult daughters, summoning them home to help her. Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) is the one who never left, the one who still helps out all the time, the one who seems to have sublimated her life to her mother. Barbara (Julia Roberts) moved away, and when she shows up, she’s with her estranged husband Bill Fordham (Ewan McGregor) and Jean (Abigail Breslin), their 14-year-old daughter, and from the moment she enters the movie, Roberts gives off a bristling angry energy. She doesn’t trust her mother, and feels uneasy about being with everyone. Karen (Juliette Lewis) is the ding-dong of the group, the daughter who always seems to be living out some slow-motion catastrophe, and her new fiancee (Dermot Mulroney) doesn’t seem like he’s going to turn things around for her. They aren’t the only ones who come to Violet’s aid, though. Violet’s sister, Mattie Fae Aiken (Margo Martindale) shows up with her husband Charles Aiken (Chris Cooper) and, eventually, their son, Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch). And once they’re all under that roof, it quickly turns into a passive aggressive war of words, a chance for Violet to show everyone just how much “truth” they can all stand, while Barbara seems determined not to let her mother bait her into more heartbreak.

The performances are all, as you might expect, very good. Streep is often both touching and terrible as Violet’s drug-induced fog rolls in, leaving her fuzzy and disoriented, then rolls out again, allowing her to perform ego surgery on each of her kids with remarkable accuracy. Roberts rarely chooses to play characters who are this openly angry and hard to like, and I have to say… she gives it everything she’s got. She goes right at Streep, hard, and they are well-matched here. Right down the line, the cast all seems to be determined to do well by the script, and I think they hit a lot of little grace notes along the way. There’s one or two scenes with Dermot Mulroney and Abigail Breslin that feel grafted on from something else, and they tonally don’t even really work with the rest of the film. Juliette Lewis is essentially window dressing here, just making faces in response to various affronts, but without much else to do. Cooper has one amazing moment with Martindale, and then he just vanishes from the film. Cumberbatch and Nicholson play a storyline that could have easily supported its own film, and while the material has the potential to land like a bomb if played right, it’s oddly muted here. It’s not their fault… it’s just that the film feels overstuffed, like director John Wells isn’t sure how to squeeze the most out of these moments.

Ultimately, he’s my biggest problem with the film. I didn’t see the Broadway production, but I read the play, and I think Letts has a great ear for the way families can casually savage one another. The play hurts. It is tough piece of writing, and when I read it, I couldn’t help but flash back to all the moments over the course of my life where I’ve seen painful moments between members of my own family. No one can hurt you more than the people who love you, because no one knows you the way they do. And while Wells gives the actors enough room to do some very strong work in the film, he’s not really doing anything to support or elevate the material. It’s like he thinks his main job is to just get out of the way, and as a result, the entire film feels to me like a pulled punch. Even the most explosive moment in the piece is muddled thanks to the way Wells stages and shoots it. And there’s a choice he makes in the final moments of the film that I feel utterly undoes the cold and brutal emotion that comes directly before it. I feel like stage is such a different experience than film that you can’t just count on something making the jump because it worked well before. I’ve had several of my plays produced, and the difference between sitting in a live theater doing a particularly tense and difficult moment and sitting in a movie theater during that same moment is that in a live theater, there is a certain extra electricity that comes from being in the room with people while this unfolds. There’s a reality to it that I think lends it a distinct visceral edge, while a movie screen can almost feel too safe, removed, and Wells isn’t a strong enough director to figure out how to get around that.

Cinematographer Adriano Goldman does a strong job of capturing the hot, stifling Oklahoma landscape that serves as the stage that the Westons use to play out their family drama, and the spare score by Gustavo Santaolalla is good, but not my favorite thing he’s done. Overall, tech credits are fine. Everyone does solid work, and the house feels lived in, the land feels real. It’s just unfortunate that something that had so many truly talented people so excited to be involved could come together in a way that is more inert than unenjoyable.

I don’t think I’d call “August: Osage County” a bad film, but I’m damn sure I wouldn’t call it a great one.

“August: Osage County” opens in limited release on December 25, 2013.