August Osage County
Directed by John Wells
Produced by George Clooney
Script by Tracy Letts from a stage play by Tracy Letts
Meryl Streep – Violet Weston (i.e. Big Daddy … or rather Big Mommy)
Sam Shepard – Beverly Weston, her husband
Chris Cooper – Charlie, her brother in law
Margo Martindale – Mattie Fae, her sister
Julia Roberts – Barbara Weston, daughter, lives in Colorado
Julianne Nicholson – Ivy Weston, long-suffering daughter, lives at home
Juliette Lewis – Karin Weston, ditzy daughter from Florida
Benedict Cumberbatch – Little Charlie, Mattie Fae’s son
Ewan McGregor – Bill, Barbara’s husband
Dermot Mulroney – Steve, Karin’s sleazy new boyfriend
Abigail Breslin – Jean, Barbara and Bill’s daughter
Misty Upham – Johnna, the new “injun” housekeeper / cook
I avoided reading the criticism in advance, though had noted two surprisingly low two star ratings. We walked out and said “That was like Festen redone by Tennessee Williams”. We got back, and read Camilla Long in the Sunday Times Culture who called it “Festen for farmers.” She was also annoyed at a theatre play being made into a film, and true, the afterglow of theatre is seen in references to Carson McCullers and T.S. Eliot. Some people dislike filmed staged plays, though they’re a tradition as long as the cinema’s history, and there are some shining examples from Cat On A Hot Tin Roof via Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to Carnage. All three are comparable here, just as the shadow of the older Elizabeth Taylor hovers directly over Meryl Streep throughout (there’s a knowing Taylor reference early on). The point is that while The West End might give you one or even two stars of this stature, you’re not going to see a play with Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor and Benedict Cumberbatch, nor are you going to see them emote in extreme close up, nor will it be punctuated by views of the wide open skies of Oklahoma. And the rest of the cast are first rate and well-known faces. So, no there’s no need to justify a film version of a theatre play. There’s a lot of tremendous acting on view. Mind you, this sort of heavy emoting is even more powerful in an actual theatre, which may be why the play got a Pulitzer Prize. I’d love to see it on stage.
You can smell the heat of Oklahoma in August, and if you can’t, the script reminds you how hot it is at least once every five minutes. Not that they’ve got a tin roof. The centrepiece of the film is the family dinner after the funeral. Powerful, often funny … but the funny bits are all in the trailer.
L to R: Violet, Ivy, Karin during grace
The reason the play, sorry film, gets some poor ratings is the trailer. We’d seen the trailer several times and gained the impression that it was going to be a star laden family black comedy. Yes, yet again, they put all the funny bits in. It’s not a comedy at all, it’s a play about severely dysfunctional family relationships, bullying, infidelity, malice, spite, cancer, alcoholism, suicide, drug addiction, divorce and incest. Oh, and bad driving in a red Ferrari too. It’s a tragic film, without a satisfactory ending or sense of closure. Yes, it is Festen writ large with much better lighting. Calling it “dark but hilarious” on posters doesn’t help. I guess they (wrongly) assumed that the mass cinema audience would already know it had been a major and tragic stage play. If they thought that, then they’re in the wrong business.
I say the trailer is at fault, because we’d had a busy couple of days and chose to see it as light relief. Coming out, another couple said “Oh, dear. It was nothing like the trailer … so depressing!” So severely misleading trailer leads to negative reactions. However, Juliette Lewis’s ditzy Karin IS funny every time she appears.
L to R: Ivy, Violet, Mattie Fae. Looks like a fun movie? It isn’t.
On the star loading, Violet (Meryl Streep) and her three daughters and sister and granddaughter are the central characters. The play, sorry film, is rather overladen with stars. Ewan McGregor is seamless as the separated husband of Julia Robert’s character, the oldest daughter, Barbara. It’s subtle, anything but starry. Benedict Cumberbatch is obligatory for cameos in American movies nowadays. He plays Little Charlie, Streep’s wet nephew, prone to tears, unable to hold down a job in a shoe shop. Little Charlie is dysfunctional because while he’s the centre of the family dark secret, he knows nothing about it. This has a psychological effect on people. He does it very well as a character cameo, but unless he’s giving major fee discounts to ensure his certain break into the A list, you have to wonder why they “needed” him. It’s not a huge part. Many American actors would have done it with ease, without needing a dialect coach. Though I doubt that he does need one with so much recent practice.
Charlie (Chris Cooper) and Little Charlie (Benedict Cumberbatch)
Chris Cooper stood out for me, as Charlie, the brother-in-law, who is (with Johnna and Bill) one of the only decent people in the storyline. He played it so well. He survives the dysfunctional lot by “smoking a lot of grass” though we never see it. The stance, the hairstyle, the dignity in the face of it all are there, but he’s not perfect. When Violet starts bullying her granddaughter over her vegetarianism, Charlie joins in with gusto.
Johnna is the Native-American help, recruited by Beverly, Violet’s ex-poet husband (Sam Shepard), at the beginning of the film. She’s a powerful presence throughout. Impassive in the face of constant denigration, particularly by Violet who makes much of refusing to say Native-American, and insisting on “Injun”. Yet Johnna saves the day when sleazy Steve tries it on with the 14-year old granddaughter, and Johnna marches out into the yard in her nightie, shovel in hand and sorts the situation suddenly, violently and effectively. And at the end, when everyone has had enough of Violet and cleared off, she’s left holding her in her arms. Great performance.
There are grumbles that this whole thing was designed as an Oscar vehicle for Streep (leading actress) and Roberts (best supporting?). I think that figures and looks apparent. They both play flat out, and both have been nominated, and the film didn’t get other major nominations. Streep and Roberts have also been nominated for most major awards this year AND get their names in much larger type on the poster. Violet is a pillhead, addicted to a cocktail of pills, chain smoking though she has oral cancer. Streep’s Violet is cruel, vicious, a monster. You can see Barbara has a touch of her mother in her too, and it’s coming out stronger as we go through. Both women give performance at an Oscar-winning level. Streep’s twisted facial mobility is astonishing.
L to R: Barbara, Violet, Ivy … all is revealed
On music, the opening and closing found pieces were excellent, but why “Lay Down Sally” by Eric Clapton featured prominently twice as Violet’s favourite was beyond me. I could list a few hundred evocative songs of the era without hitting upon this rather lacklustre song and performance. Badly missed opportunity. Last Mile Home by The Kings of Leon is a good end piece.
When we came out, I thought, well, brilliant, but I’ve seen it and it’s indeed depressing. I won’t watch it on DVD. But having done the review, posted it, then tinkered with additions the next day, I find I really want to see it again.
Alternative poster with the end of the funeral dinner. Roberts on Streep. Martindale referee.