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How “August: Osage County” Got It Wrong

January 25, 2014

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I’ve waited to see the film adaptation of August: Osage County until now because I caught Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer-Prize winning play on Broadway, and it was one of the most transformative theater-going experiences of my life. I knew I was bound to be disappointed by the movie. But I had no idea just how disappointed I would be.

First of all, let me stipulate: Meryl Streep is spectacular. She always is. Several costars–most notably Chris Cooper, Margo Martindale and Julianne Nicholson–are equally good. The problem is: Director John Wellsmissed the point that August: Osage County is a comedy. A pitch-black comedy, but a comedy nonetheless.

On Broadway, the show–a dysfunctional family saga about a midwestern clan coping with suicide, cancer, alcoholism, drug addiction, incest and pedophilia–drew raucous, roof-shaking laughter like I’ve never heard. The cast–all of them veterans of Chicago’s justifiably legendary Steppenwolf theater company–found the humor in the heartbreak. The show ran more than three hours, but flew by. It felt like the world’s longest, and funniest, episode of Roseanne (before they won the lottery in the final season and the sitcom suddenly sucked.) Steppenwolf knows how to do that–just watch their version of True West, a play by Sam Shepard (who’s wonderful in August in a small part as the family patriarch) that starred a young John Malkovich and Gary Sinise and drew huge yuks from the tale of two brothers trying to kill each other.

Letts adapted his own play for the screen (Mistake No. 1!) and cut nearly an hour out of the script, yet the film feels so much longer. Much of what was cut concerned Margo Martindale’s character (the actress who played her on Broadway won a Tony, and Martindale should’ve gotten an Oscar nomination instead of her costar Julia Roberts in the supporting actress category), as well as the skeevy flirtation between the terrific Dermot Mulroney’s thrice-divorced sleazebag and fiancee Juliette Lewis’ 14-year-old niece (well-played by Little Miss Sunshine‘s all-grown-up Abigail Breslin). The taboo relationship between Benedict Cumberbatch’s and Nicholson’s characters also gets short shrift. What’s left are lots of scenes between Streep and Roberts, who’s merely adequate–yes, she wears minimal makeup and loose-fitting clothes, but that’s not acting, ladies and gentlemen. The movie turns into a mother-daughter story a la Terms of Endearment, although again, without a lot of the jokes.

For that, I blame director John Wells. The man has no background in comedy, having produced dead-serious dramas like ER (starring George Clooney, one of August’s executive producers) as well as the depressing downsizing film The Company Men. He has zero feel for humor, which turns the movie into even more of a downer than the pills Meryl Streep’s character is constantly scarfing. He also miscasts two Brits–Cumberbatch and Ewen McGregor–as Americans, and neither is very convincing.

On stage, the action took place almost entirely on one set–the family’s sprawling three-story house. It was thrilling to watch. But Letts and Wells refuse to open up the story for the big screen, and it just winds up feeling claustrophobic. The characters are constantly complaining about the August heat, but they’re nowhere near as uncomfortable as the audience suffering through this airless dud.

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One Comment
  1. Humor is definitely what this depressing 3-hour Jerry Springer episode needed. I’m glad I’m not alone in disliking it…although I’ve never seen the play to compare it to.

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