August: Osage County

Oscar bait. But Academy voters were smart enough to only nominate the film in two acting categories. Whether or not they’re deserved is another story altogether.

‘August: Osage County’ stars every important actor known to mankind – Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Chris Cooper, Ewan McGregor, Sam Shepard, Benedict Cumberbatch, Juliette Lewis and that’s maybe half of the cast. Based on the Pulitzer Prize winning play by Tracy Letts, the film presents us with an estranged Oklahoma family of intellectuals that gets together after the patriarch’s death and must deal with their various strained interpersonal dynamics. 

I haven’t seen the play, so I can’t offer a critical comparison between the film and the play, but I do know that the play is about three hours long. The movie version of ‘August: Osage County’ runs at 121 minutes. Mathematically, the film represents about two-thirds the runtime of its source material. This leads me to believe that a vital section has been stripped away – whatever it is that makes these characters even moderately credible in the play is gone. There was only one character that registered and non-coincidentally, this was the lone character who demonstrated any kind of decency. I’m not saying that movie worlds should only be inhabited by decent-hearted types. But, there has to some acknowledgement of their behavior, or some complexity to these (preferably layered) characters. There isn’t a rooting interest here as we listen to these loud (11 on a 10 scale), shrieky, draining arguments amongst the members of the most dysfunctional family in modern cinema.  The play’s lengthier runtime probably allowed for more richness to the characters.

Director John Wells, whose previous lone feature was ‘The Company Men’ takes the William Freidkin approach in adapting a story involving a struggle for power within the confines of a domestic space. However, Friedkin was always able to create tension with the material; Wells just turns it into an overcooked mess. 

There is a big reveal towards the end of this picture that had me shrugging my shoulders; I just didn’t care. And that is mainly because I found 90% of the characters to be completely loathsome 100% of the time. What we get is a series of well-written verbal jousts for people who do not exist, have never existed, and will never exist. There is no universality to this material; no emotional connection. What’s in abundant supply, however, is a number of showy, go-for-broke performances from a gifted ensemble. Unfortunately, that isn’t enough. QED. 

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