Remember Cliff’s Notes? The ultimate cheat-sheet style study guides designed to “present and explain literary and other works in pamphlet form or online” in condensed format? Frowned upon by serious literature professors, they offer a superficial overview of great literary work without depth or nuance. They exist as the sort of panacea a time-challenged or disinterested college student might invest in to avoid reading a 1,000-page novel, while hoping to fake it through the final exam with a passing grade.
That’s what seeing the Weinstein Company’s film version of Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County feels like—the superficial Cliff’s Notes version of a magnificent play.
Tracy Letts’ gut-wrenching 2007 family drama with dark comic overtones runs three and a half hours on stage, with two intermissions, much needed for the audience to absorb what it has experienced and get its breath back. After winning Chicago’s Jeff Award for Best Play in 2007, it went to Broadway in 2008 where it won Best Play at the Tony, Drama Desk, Drama League and New York Drama Critics' Circle Awards among other honors, in addition to receiving the Pulitzer Prize in Drama, 2008. To condense this masterful epic into just short of two hours’ duration on film, without intermission and spun into a star vehicle, does not serve the work well.
Thankfully the producers had the good sense to hire Letts to adapt his script into the screenplay. It possesses much of the grittiness and bite of the stage version. It retains some crucial scenes and standout monologues that made it soar on stage. Letts edited out select scenes with secondary characters that did not advance the work on stage, but I doubt he had much to do with the tacked on, schmaltzy Hollywood ending with soft, lingering focus on a certain female movie star’s face. Pocketed his cash and made one hasty exit, nary a glance back? Can’t blame him.
The elements that prevent this film from being more than a moderately acceptable adaptation are its pacing, its character development and its cast. Its maddeningly deliberate pace helps create the majestic beauty of the play.
Not much happens fast in Osage County, Oklahoma, in sweltering August; “normal” life has ground to a screeching halt for the Weston family, embroiling every member in contention and grueling self-reckoning. As tensions mount and strange truths emerge from the oppressive stasis, the stage work speaks with a grandeur reminiscent of Tennessee Williams or Eugene O’Neill. It transcends the specific and reflects universal human experience for our time. In contrast, the film feels rushed, harried, glossed over. Character arcs have no chance to unfold at the tortured pace of the original. I ached for even just one tiny intermission, to exhale, to gather my wits, to ingest what I had witnessed.
Instead the film careens along like a television crime drama for the attention-challenged, lurching from shocking moment to moment, offering no actor a real chance to explore appropriate transitions or react to revelations. If you Weinstein folks have the guts to make this film, then why not make it 100 percent, not a half-baked Cliff’s Notes version?
Some casting works. Chris Cooper excels as the marginalized, ineffectual Uncle Charlie, the sanest family member with a genuine moral compass. Benedict Cumberbatch complements Cooper well as his self-deprecating, mentally challenged son Little Charles. They feel like a bewildered father and son duo negotiating the wiles of a cruel family together. Julianne Nicholson plays the stay-at-home Weston daughter Ivy with quiet assurance, making her performance natural and notable within a gaggle of brand-name actors working hard and noisily at being epic and dramatic.
Meryl Streep is beyond doubt the finest film actress of our time. As Violet Weston, the play’s central character, she never quite finds believable vocal resonance as a woman suffering with mouth cancer, lifelong depression, drug addiction and loss of her spouse. While focusing so hard on making Streep look like a Violet Weston with wigs and make-up and body attitude, director John Wells seems to have forgotten to close his eyes and listen to her voice. She declaims Violet’s lines with manic presence but never believably inhabits the character with its sad truth or underlying desperation. Streep always gives an interesting performance. Here, she never fully becomes Violet.
The camera loves Julia Roberts, as I don’t. She can change her hairstyle, make-up, costume, era and setting; yet the woman gives a similar performance in everything she does. She seems always too aware of the camera’s gaze, rather than immersing herself in character scene. To conclude this film with a tacked on, soap opera ending, solo, “soft focus” Roberts, makes one empathize with the stage play’s downward spiral catalyst Beverly Weston (played briefly in the film by Sam Shepard), drinking himself to lonely oblivion on the local lake in his fishing boat.
» August: Osage County opens Friday, Jan. 10, in wide release.
» Alexandra Bonifield writes primarily stage reviews on her site Criticalrant.com and has reviewed four different professional productions in three cities of August: Osage County. She considers herself a Letts junkie.
» Here's a trailer: