Movie Review: August: Osage County- John Wells’ Sophomoric Direction Makes for a Durable and Fairly Poetic Adaptation of Tracy Letts’ Play

augustThe concepts of legacy and family tend to go hand in hand but that assumed positive link usually fails to recognize the potentially negative outcomes that can be handed down from generation to generation where dysfunction, bitterness, and judgment prevails over harmony, love, and understanding. This negative focus on the pure dysfunction that festers and spreads throughout the family roots much like a disease that damages the potential of fruitful growth is the deep focus in playwright Tracy Letts’ play August: Osage County, which comes to the big screen through the literal and figurative sophomoric direction of John Wells (The Company Men). Being Wells’ sophomore cinematic effort there are some deeply admirable qualities contained in his presentation of Letts’ darkly humorous and dramatically impactful script but tends to often times drift away from perfectly balancing the two highly emotive extremes by also opening up the intentionally claustrophobic play. Adapting the written word of a play into the visual medium of cinema is an exceptionally hard endeavor and August: Osage County, while dramatically impressive in performance and not too much else, could be offered as a study on how plays often times are a preferable experience on the stage. However, John Wells’ take on the family dysfunction revealed through unforgiving honesty, family secret twists, and melodramatic flair on equal scale as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is definitely an exhausting yet entertaining experience focused on deep character reflection, authentic performances, and acrobatic dialogue clashes. Compared to other Letts adaptations, the other two being Bug and Killer Joe both directed by William Friedkin and only the latter being superb, August: Osage County stands as a fairly strong cinematic addition to those attempts that relinquishes some of the play’s more haunting claustrophobia for a visual openness and a relatively positive changed ending that doesn’t necessarily work as intended. Letts’ play brings to mind the haunting and poetic words of another writer Mitch Albom in his book “The Five People You Meet in Heaven” where he wrote, “All parents damage their children. It cannot be helped. Youth, like pristine glass, absorbs the prints of its handlers. Some parents smudge, others crack, a few shatter childhoods completely into jagged little pieces, beyond repair.” August: Osage County demonstrates  just how dark yet humorously familiar the raw and heartbreaking effects that damage the possible growth the family limbs encounter as they grow away from the equally damaged family tree and while Wells’ film isn’t pristine it certainly delivers a dramatically engaging experience.

Tracy Letts’ play offered the inspiration for the August: Osage County script which Letts himself penned the screenplay as he has done for the other adaptations of his work including Friedkin’s adaptations of the poorly mishandled Bug and the creepily engaging Killer Joe. Instead of remaining the house for the drama to unfold Letts has opened up the drama to take place not only at times in the dark, claustrophobic house but also in the vast openness of Osage County itself that acts as a sort of flat visual allegory to aiding in the intended visual translation. Adapting one’s own well over 3-hour play must be an extensive and irritating effort so Letts himself must be commended for translating this weighty dramatic work into a palpable two hour film that maintains his blend of Shakespearean verbosity, darker than black humor, and riveting performance potential. The basic plot revolves around the tremendously damaged Weston family, which includes the pill addicted monarch Violet Weston (Meryl Streep) and the families of her three widely affected daughters Barbara (Julia Roberts), Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), and Karen (Juliette Lewis), where a tragic suicide based on apathetic fatigue brings them all under one roof. It isn’t a play or a film of basic storytelling construction because it’s entirely focused on the revelations of character brought forth through hardened family resentment, familial mockery, and an ever rising intense emotionality. Letts offers characters that are infinitely layered and slowly reels out their hidden intentions or secrets through the uncomfortable and humorous dysfunction that drives the entire drama forward giving ample opportunity for whoever plays these well-defined characters to showcase a wide range of acting vulnerability. While there are some minor changes in the script from the play, mainly a widening of the environment and a peculiar ending that doesn’t necessarily confirm its necessary existence, Letts’ adaptation of his own play gives director John Wells a phenomenal guide into exposing the deepest, darkest, and uncomfortably humorous twists involved in the Weston family, which Wells tackles in a confident yet not entirely impeccable fashion.

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Plays have a tendency to get diluted in effect via the visual medium of cinema because they’re intended to focus on two very divergent avenues in telling the story, with plays focusing on the evocative delivery of dialogue and cinema focusing on how much of the story is told visually instead of verbally. This fact alone is what hints to why John Wells’ direction doesn’t amount to anything beyond simply capturing the performances as much as he can and yet does so with a slightly detrimental touch. Of course the infamous table scene involving all of the family verbally abusing each other in nasty, humiliating, and chastising ways is captured astonishingly well because Wells provided the intimate camerawork and close-ups required to make it authentically uncomfortable with the high points of drama and the breaks in humor. However, whenever Wells ventures away from the core household into the openness of Osage County itself it sometimes doesn’t allow the drama to land as fully as it was intended in the play most notably in a scene where Violet (Meryl Streep) is chased down by her daughter Barbara (Julia Roberts) in an open field resulting in a connection scene that seemed neutered in impact. Another artistic criticism can come from the chosen tone of cinematography by Adriano Goldman which seemed drastically cool when the spoken environment was during a heat wave begging for more brightness or a hotter mood in order to place the audience mentally in what the characters were experiencing. Unfortunately the changed ending as well doesn’t work either in concept or delivery as they exit the heartbreaking yet potentially hopeful ending inside the house to an all new revelation with Barbara that seems forceful and takes you out of the already powerful conclusion. These are all minor criticisms that only really stand out because they are amidst a plethora of scenes that are so strong in subtle direction and larger than life performance that it’s easy to take note of the minority of semi-poor creative choices. Overall though it seems John Wells has absorbed some talent from being around phenomenal shows such as E.R. and The West Wing and has been able to improve since his directorial debut The Company Men, which was mild in its characterization and somewhat commendable in its dramatic portrait of modern day employment and identity struggles. Though the technical elements could have used some finely tuned creative inspiration, such as maintaining the uncomfortable intimacy of the family through subtle camera use instead of opening up the world to give you a break from the claustrophobia, John Wells does contribute in obtaining the essential quality needed to make August: Osage County memorable and that is through the performances.

If every performance needed to be astoundingly on point in August: Osage County then it should be noted that isn’t the truth in this version of Letts’ play but luckily a majority of the cast give an astonishing presentation of the very essence and being of the acting art that distracts from the minor few performances that don’t shine as often or as well. Surprisingly it is the three core sisters that don’t have as strong of a presence as everyone else in the dramatic household, the first being Julia Roberts who does indeed give a strong performance, something we haven’t seen in her for quite some time, but showcases too early vulnerability in her character diminishing the impact of further dramatic degradation as the film progresses on. Next in line is Julianne Nicholson who clearly debilitated herself in rivaling her two main screen rivals Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep because she must have been in awe of these two acting powerhouses giving her performance a rather subdued neutrality when it could have been far more engaging. Juliette Lewis is definitely the strongest performance of the sisters that could perhaps be linked to being next to the great Dermot Mulroney the entire film who is delightfully sleazy as the real outside observer to the family craziness. Most of the Weston men contribute memorable presences in this acting portrait with the short lived but practical performance of Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Sam Shepherd to the graceful and emerging performance from the always phenomenal Chris Cooper. Even the British and Scottish transplants of Benedict Cumberbatch and Ewan McGregor fit right in with the dysfunctional Americana never once breaking their control of their characters. However, the real tour de force presence within August: Osage County is of course the commanding performance delivered from Meryl Streep who showcases an incredible range in her characters damaged sensibilities both through an unpleasant demeanor and an emotionally contrary experience through pill addiction. Streep may have not deserved the Oscar for her portrayal as Margaret Thatcher, an award that should have gone to Viola Davis for The Help, but if she happened to win for this incredible performance you wouldn’t hear nary a complaint denying her exceptional presence and control. If it weren’t for all of these fine actors, six of whom have garnished Academy Award wins and nominations, then August: Osage County wouldn’t have worked as well as it does because the perfection of casting has become an art in itself.

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Family has initially been used as a depiction for happiness or a solace from the complexities of life when the outside world becomes more and more unforgiving but Letts turns that assumption upside down pinpointing family as the cause of a great deal of personal misfortune. The Weston family tree began with meanness and kept growing with continual judgment affecting the young as it carries on from generation to generation giving Letts’ play a foreboding tone despite its deviations into black humor to ease the dramatic pain. Though John Wells’ adaptation of August: Osage County doesn’t fully convince that a cinema version could be better or even as good as the stage experience it still preserves Letts’ undeniable talent for dialogue and performance while capturing growth instilling phenomenal performances from an already established and matured cast. Perhaps if there was a deeper focus on the intimacy of the family instead of focusing on opening up the presentation for differentiating visual environments preserving the claustrophobic intentions of the play then it could have been one of the finest play adaptations ever conceived. However, August: Osage County is overall a strong film with practical sophomoric direction that has riveting dramatic performances that will make you laugh, squirm, and gasp in the many instances of bleak humor, uncomfortable revelations, and shocking dramatic turns that is assuredly part of the Tracy Letts experience.

Grade: B

Side note: This movie comes out in limited release December 25th

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Comments
2 Responses to “Movie Review: August: Osage County- John Wells’ Sophomoric Direction Makes for a Durable and Fairly Poetic Adaptation of Tracy Letts’ Play”
  1. HG says:

    I don’t believe you quite understand the definition of “sophomoric.”

    • octavarium08 says:

      Considering it means overly confident but possesses immaturity I believe it fits nicely in my criticism of Wells’ confident yet undeveloped direction.

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