Directed by: John Wells
Starring: Meryl Streep, Dermot Mulroney, Julia Roberts, Juliette Lewis
“Why are you screaming at us?” shouts Julia Roberts to an Oscar baiting Meryl Streep, unintentionally echoing the thoughts of the audience midway through this melodramatic family drama. For much of the first hour of this Tracy Letts’s scribed adaptation of his own Pulitzer Prize winning play, characters squawk at each other during lengthy and emotionally void scenes that do nothing beyond heightening your craving for a Paracetamol. The further it develops, the better it eventually becomes, but unfortunately August: Osage County is a film that never succeeds in escaping its restrictive theatrical roots.
You know the location, you know the month (thus explaining the constant references to the Oklahoma heat in the opening third) and after 2 hours, you’re going to know the Weston family, who all gather at their Midwest family home after a domestic tragedy. Letts’s story is of a familial pressure cooker that continues to build the more family secrets are revealed; much of which is down to Violet, the brittle head of the household whose own demons threaten to break her entire family apart.
It wouldn’t be Oscar season without Meryl Streep turning in a dramatically emphatic performance and when it comes to picking a clip of her to play on Oscar night, the Academy will be spoilt for choice. It’s certainly not one of her most memorable performances though; Violet spends much of her time simply berating whichever family member she happens to be sharing a scene with, meaning that while it’s a dramatically strong part, it feels wildly inconsequential.
That’s sadly an inescapable feeling throughout much of the film. For the most part, Letts’s script is a character study that tries too hard, too often to force emotion from both the ensemble and the audience. What should be a melancholically poignant portrait of a family boiling under the heat of their own indiscretions, rarely feels like anything more than an exaggerated drama. The film’s centerpiece, a funeral feast attended by all, sees Violet carve up each person sitting around the table with more gusto than even the most devout carnivore would reserve for a roast chicken. Sadly, the endless uproar has grown almost tiresome by this point, meaning it’s hard to be emotionally concerned with the action that unfolds.
Thankfully, the second half of the film allows the story to escape the claustrophobic confines of the Weston home and with it comes a few touching, quieter moments. The chemistry between Streep and Julia Roberts, who plays Violet’s daughter Barbara, sizzles with the undertones of disappointment each character feels for the other. While some of the narrative’s later revelations give creed to the tension Letts tries to build during the film’s first half. Universally, the performances are certainly admirable; particularly Benedict Cumberbatch, whose subtlety speaks greater volumes than Streep’s bellowing spinster ever can.
The joy of transferring a tale from the stage to the screen is that it’s meant to allow for a more understated tale to unfold. However, with Streep spending much of her screen time shattering both her tonsils and our eardrums, August: Osage County rarely feels like anything more than an extension of the stage-set original. Some tender exchanges in the second half briefly lifts the tone, but on the whole this feels like little more than an over-cooked breakdown of a family unit, designed solely for Streep to once again display her acting prowess. The Academy will no doubt love it.