August: Osage County

“Don’t get all Carson McCullers on us,” Julia Roberts’ character warns a relative, referring to the 20th-century author who specialized in stories of Southern tragicomedy. The film takes its own advice — its first and greatest misstep.

With Tulsa-born Tracy Letts adapting his 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winning play for the screen, August: Osage County should wear both masks representative of its stage roots — the tragedy and the comedy — and Letts’ own work. He possesses a wicked sense of humor that resides in the darkest recesses. Perhaps his script does, too, only to be ill-served by television vet John Wells (ER, The West Wing), whose only other feature as director is 2010’s already forgotten The Company Men.

Whoever shoulders the blame, Letts’ marriage of the dramatic styles that bound so strongly in 2011’s Killer Joe or 2006’s Bug — both adaptations criminally underseen and misunderstood — is a no-show in August. William Friedkin’s Killer Joe, in particular, boasts everything August lacks: stellar performances, knot-tight tension, genuine laughs, a fellated KFC drumstick.

But it does have an ensemble flooded with Hollywood heavy-hitters whose collective shelves sag with the welcome weight of Academy Awards, Emmys, Golden Globes and like statuettes. Chief among the cast is Meryl Streep, following up the featherlight Hope Springs with sheer overexertion as clan matriarch Violet, whose first name should be altered to make way for a penultimate “N.” Upon the suicide of her alcoholic husband (Sam Shepard, Mud), Violet finds her country residence invaded by three generations of family members whose mere presence inconveniences her daily schedule, packed as it is with popping pills, smoking cigarettes and popping pills.

Loud, blowsy, passive-aggressive Violet says the most hateful things simply for the stings they bring. Although rightly a living legend, Streep has misjudged her approach, coming off as comedic where Letts had not intended and failing to where he had. In an inadvertent case of leading by example, others overact in lockstep, worst of all Roberts as eldest daughter Barbara. Turning in the most understated performance is, ironically, among the lowest-wattage names: Julianne Nicholson (TV’s Masters of Sex), whose Ivy never could stray far, despite her mother’s unending verbal abuse.

For a film that so often references the Sooner State’s sweltering summer heat, August: Osage County feels cold to the touch throughout. It stuffs a month’s worth of soap-opera story arcs into two hours and then hits “deep fry.” Oklahomans understandably may be curious to spot Bartlesville and Pawhuska locations, but
true to the ends-in-“-re” theatre, rarely does the movie venture outside
Violet’s house. And her house is not a home.

Wells’
film is like a rubber band that one cannot stretch quite to the desired
length. Stressed to a breaking point, it splits and snaps back at you.
It is not significant enough to leave a mark.

Hey! Read This:

Rod Lott

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