by George Wolf
So, how was your family get-together over the Holidays?
If secrets and dinner plates weren’t tossed about like a salad dressed with obscenities, you’ve got nothing on the Westons, the dysfunctional brood at the heart of August: Osage County.
Screenwriter Tracy Letts adapts his own Pulitzer Prize-winning play, and the sublime wordplay in his dark, rich comedy is brought to life via an exceptional ensemble cast. Only tentative direction from John Wells holds the film back from its full potential.
Meryl Streep rules the roost as family matriarch Violet Weston, who..ahem…”welcomes” her children, siblings and assorted other team members back home after a family crisis.
There isn’t much time spent on niceties before the barbs start flying. Old wounds are exposed, and new secrets are uncovered as the family struggles to deal with the effect their past has on their present.
At the heart of the conflict is Barbara, the oldest Weston daughter, fully realized by Julia Roberts in, hands down, the performance of her career.
Barbara’s contempt for her mother is on hilariously full display, while bubbling underneath is the fear of becoming her mother, a fear she tries to hide through angry outbursts. Stealing a movie from Meryl Streep is no easy feat, but damned if Roberts doesn’t do it.
In fact, the film is wall to wall with fine performers, including Chris Cooper, Sam Shepard, Juliette Lewis, Ewan McGregor, and Margo Martindale (who shows a fantastic chemistry with Streep, giving their scenes together an added air of mischief).
The problem is, director John Wells seems a bit intimidated by who, and what, he’s working with. The characters are too often on their own island, as when a soap opera cuts from a close up of one deep sigh to a completely different storyline.
These characters are under one roof for much of the movie, yet we don’t feel the cohesiveness of any shared connections, just a series of histrionics often left swinging in the venomous breeze.
It’s not the material. Letts also wrote Bug and Killer Joe, both adapted into brilliant movies by the skills of legendary director William Friedkin. Wells, a veteran TV director, doesn’t provide the nuance needed to make a successful cinematic leap.
August: Osage County boasts all the ingredients, and is certainly entertaining, but ultimately feels like a missed opportunity for something special.