by Adam Wright
In 2008, Tulsa native Tracy Letts won a Pulitizer Prize for his play “August: Osage County.” He subsequently adapted the story into a screenplay and now The Weinstein Company’s cinematic production of “August: Osage County” is currently in theaters. Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Juliette Lewis, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Abigail Breslin lead the way in this dramedy’s richly talented ensemble.
None of the many characters in “August: Osage County” seem to have much love or esteem from where they come from. More specifically, none of them are particularly happy about being from Oklahoma. The film’s first fifteen minutes make it very clear that no one wants to be there. It’s too hot. Alcohol is required to make the situation bearable. And, just to bare her own parents, fourteen-year-old Jean (Abigail Breslin) needs cigarettes. Barbara (Julia Roberts) even goes so far as to make sure her husband understands that Oklahoma does not even make the list of Midwestern states. Oklahoma is the “plains.” But, for Barbara, a Midwestern designation would be preferable–more distinguished, somehow.
Streep plays the crotchety, erratic, and surly Violet Weston. The woman is insufferable. And yet, ironically, she is also suffering of mouth cancer. Furthermore, Violet has not seen her husband for several days and quickly her three daughters, her sister, her brother-in-law, her nephew, her granddaughter, and her future son-in-law come to Violet’s aide. Violet’s disagreeable nature is compounded and complicated by an addiction to pills and the company of her dysfunctional family, leaving precious little grace, civility, or calm amongst the hastily formulated reunion.
Director John Wells (Showtime’s “Shameless” and 2010’s “The Company Men”) filmed most of the movie in northeastern Oklahoma, but nearly all of the scenes take place in a single setting: The Weston family home. Whenever the camera does happen to venture away from the aged and weathered farmhouse, there is very little to see–only empty prairies and empty plains, save for the occasional hay bale. There are also a couple of scenes inside cars. There are sunsets. There is a doctor’s office. And there are a few exterior shots of small town shops and buildings. That’s about it. Like many stories that were originally written for the stage, “August: Osage County” does not require elaborate sets or special effects. But here the film’s minimalistic nature also accentuates the characters’ own feelings about where they come from and where they are headed: nowhere. The empty prairies of Oklahoma are just as empty as everything else in the world. To the Westons, it is all the same. Barbara Weston (Julia Roberts), the most estranged of the three daughters, stops her mother from trying to run away from their present circumstances. In an open field, Barbara grabs her fleeing mother and says, “There’s nowhere to go.”
While Letts thrives at writing engaging and darkly funny dialogue, the character revelations, the family’s secrets, and the entire narrative itself are all unveiled through exposition. The only problem with this presentation is the actors and actresses do not always find their stride with one another. There are no flawless performances in “August: Osage County,” only a mixed bag of good and bad moments, but mostly good. At times, every cast member delivers a line as if they don’t actually understand what the line means. Ewan McGregor especially fumbles for footing in the film, but the most problematic scene comes when 10 of the 11 major characters dine together around the same table. Both the chemistry between actors and the editing needs to improve for a more natural, less forced interaction. The all-star cast isn’t a family in this scene. They are individuals waiting for their turn to speak up. The balance just isn’t right.
Almost out of necessity, human beings adopt the character flaws of their parents. This is the lesson at the heart of “August: Osage County.” Daughters become their mothers. Sons become their fathers. All of us are a product of the people that raised us and the place where that happened. And we will all remain as such until, for our sake, we make the decision to steer ourselves away from the people and the place that made us and go in a new direction.