Friday, January 24, 2014

Family Matters: AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY


In adapting his Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning play August: Osage County to screenplay form, Tracy Letts, who has also adapted his Bug and Killer Joe into movies, trimmed the runtime by an hour but kept a great deal of its rich selection of meaty dialogues and monologues. The resulting film gathers a hugely talented ensemble and sets them before this all-you-can-act buffet and lets them chew. It’s theatrical, obviously finely written and overacted to the rafters. The story kicks off with the disappearance of the old patriarch of a large Oklahoman family. We glimpse him, played by Sam Shephard, in a brief introductory scene during which he reads us some T.S. Eliot in voice over. But now he’s gone, and his pill-popping cancer-patient wife (Meryl Streep) calls her grown daughters (Julia Roberts, Julianne Nicholson, and Juliette Lewis) home to wait and worry. Showing off its stagebound roots by trapping the ensemble in a stuffy house – you can almost feel the dusty stillness of the oppressive late-summer air – the film is eager to show us these great actors delivering great dialogue.

The screen is crowded with characters and none escape emotionally unscathed. Streep’s matriarch has cancer of the mouth and early on shouts that the pain has her feeling like he tongue is on fire. Hoo boy, is it ever. She spits unfiltered invective at everyone and everything, screwing up her face as if sucking on a lemon before the acid bubbles out of her, eating away at her family members. She feels neglected. She feels unappreciated. She feels abandoned. She’s shockingly mean and caustic under the mistaken belief that she’s simply telling the truth. You can feel sorry for her while completely understanding why two of her three daughters would want to move so far away. Roberts, who flies in with her husband (Ewan McGregor) and daughter (Abigail Breslin), is anxious and depressed. Lewis, the flightiest daughter, arrives with a stranger (Dermot Mulroney) she introduces, to her family’s surprise, as her fiancĂ©. Nicholson, the most reserved and quietly dutiful of the daughters, has been helping her mother’s caretaker (Misty Upham), to what many characters assume is the detriment of her personal life. Streep’s sister (Margo Martindale), brother-in-law (Chris Cooper), and nephew (Benedict Cumberbatch) arrive as well, casserole in tow.

The centerpiece of the film is a lengthy disastrous dinner scene in which everyone gets to masticate over their lines with great delight as they start slow and build to a great roaring cacophony of spitting, wailing, teasing, lamenting, hollering, accusing, reminiscing, and snapping. In this scene, and many that approach its intensity of character and feeling, the acting is energetic, enthusiastic, and convincing in a beautifully theatrical way. It wouldn’t work if the ensemble was not so nicely balanced, some (Streep, Roberts, Martindale, Lewis) going so big, teeth tearing at every bit of scenery that crosses their paths, that others (Cooper, Nicholson, Breslin) can lean back and go low-key and small. There’s a sense of generosity, the actors pitching their performances at just the right levels to blend wonderfully without a sense that anyone is trying to out act their castmates. It’s gloriously hammy in the best sense of theatricality and the film is wise to step back and let them roar.

That’s precisely what the film is best at giving us: a talented ensemble chewing its way through delicious writing. It’s not much in the way of visually interesting, but that’s hardly an attempt on my part to pin the movie’s faults on staginess. On the contrary, I found the film’s theatrical roots to be better the more clearly and simply shown. This is only the second film from director John Wells, a longtime TV writer, director, and showrunner most famous for NBC’s E.R. and currently of Showtime’s Shameless. He shoots the film only functionally, with little personality. He stays out of the way of the crackling chaos in the familial war of words as old resentments erupt, spilling over into freshly growing fissure vents.

Even after slightly over two hours, there’s not much clarity in the geography of our surroundings or the house’s architecture. And the few attempts to open up past the proscenium – just a couple of car trips, really – seem too desperate an attempt to make it play at some imagined ideal of cinematic interpretation. Wells’s inexpressive direction dutifully captures the performances and allows for appreciation of Letts’s writing, but more imagination in the visual staging, and maybe even a better sense of claustrophobia by heightening the theatrical roots, would’ve brought the whole endeavor up to the same level as the material and the performances. He traffic-cops the cast capably, coaxing a fine-tuned sense of energy and a great underlying tension in the straining relationships. But in the end, I found myself appreciating the performances and the writing more than being moved by the whole.

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