I love Meryl Streep. She’s a fantastic actress, she’s an awesome human being and she just doesn’t give a fuck. However, I find myself liking Meryl Streep films less and less as time goes by. She has an increasingly strange habit of choosing to star in really odd and terrible films, particularly ones involving the ridiculous Phyllida Lloyd. Streep is always a reliable and amazing performer but she just doesn’t seem to picking the productions worthy of her brilliance. However, I have been excited about August: Osage County for a while now because of its amazing cast and the potential brilliance from adapting Tracy Lett’s 2008 Pulitzer Prize winning play. Casting Meryl Streep as the unstable head of a fractured and eccentric family and surrounding her with other great actors could only be a recipe for success. Plus, as I’m sure you’re aware by now, I’ll happily embrace anything involving Benedict Cumberbatch’s cheekbones (especially when there’s singing involved).
August: Osage County boasts a screenplay written by Letts that stays as loyal to the original play as a dramatically reduced script (to cut the running time down by 1 hour) possibly can. We are introduced to Beverly (Sam Shepard) and Violet Weston (Streep), a husband and wife who have supposedly struck a balance between their respective addictions: in his case alcohol and in hers a cocktail of drugs originally prescribed for her mouth cancer. When Beverly goes missing, Violet’s extended family assemble in support: her three daughters Barbara (Julia Roberts), Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) and Karen (Juliette Lewis) and their partners; her sister and brother-in-law (Margo Martindale and Chris Cooper); and her shy nephew Little Charles (Cumberbatch).
The narrative takes some time to find its feet and the initial set-up feels a little flat. However, once the key turning point has been reached the drama is turned up to 11 and the volume reaches insane levels. August: Osage County boast an incredible cast, who bring with them a combination of five Oscar wins and 24 nominations, which goes all out to act their socks off in a narrative full of barbed insults, dramatic confrontations and a sweltering intensity. Everything really comes to a head during the 25 minute long dinner scene where Violet’s anger explodes over her unsuspecting family. It’s one of those scenes that just leaves you utterly engrossed yet horrified by the dialogue being thrown across the potatoes.
There is an exhausting amount of acting on display here that continually threatens to spill over the narrative and self-destruct. Each character has their own hidden turmoil which comes out in their individual big moment of shouting, verbal abuse and fist-clenching emotions. Thanks to the shortening of the script some of the quieter characters and scenes are less developed than they should have been: being shunned in favour of the more overwhelming moments of family melodrama.
Dramatic scenes that are dominated by Violet during her drug-fuelled moment of ferocity. Streep is clearly in her element playing Violet and completely indulges in the role of the vicious, pill-popping matriarch. It’s the kind of performance that staggers along the line between perfectly judged and uncomfortably hammy. She soars during Violet’s most heinous moments but falls flat in her more understated moments.
Streep finds herself a more than willing sparring partner in Julia Roberts who plays her angry eldest daughter. I have never been entirely convinced by Roberts but there were several scenes in August: Osage County where I saw hints of greatness. The subtle but powerful scene when Barbara is travelling with her daughter (Abigail Breslin) where they conduct an uncomfortable but emotional exchange was one such standout. This is one of Roberts’ greatest roles for a while and she spends her time moving between exhausted aggravation and uncontrollable anger.
Taking their place in the background are some fine but hardly dazzling performances. Juliette Lewis makes a mark as the younger and brassy daughter when she is allowed to do something more than react to other people’s arguments. Julianne Nicholson has been underrated and, along with an understated yet still measured Benedict Cumberbatch, gives the film a sympathetic point. Then we have Chris Cooper who, after a lifetime of accepting his wife’s criticism, finally comes into his own whilst defending his put-upon son.
There is a great deal of talent on display but all of these careful performances get lost thanks to the timid man at the helm. Director John Wells clearly holds the original stage productions in such high regard that he isn’t willing to go far enough to turn this into a film rather than simply a film version of a play. His direction just seems uninspired and his thematic vision is nothing but annoyingly clichéd. Everything Wells does he does out of respect but he certainly sacrifices style for loyalty. There was a great deal of potential to come from adapting this well-received play using some of the finest actors working at the moment. However, in the hands of John Wells the film just reeks of a lack of imagination. You can’t help but feel that in the hands of a more adventurous filmmaker that the real genius of Lett’s work would have shown through.