August: Osage County
John Wells (The West Wing) takes ambitious ground directing Tracy Letts' portrait of a back-stabbing and conniving family in "August: Osage County." Although this faithful rendition of the Pulitzer-Prize-winning drama is executed well, the caterwauling predicaments threaten to grate and grind a bit with a hectically compressed adaptation. Nearly every character is in a tizzy with a tempest, whirling about with an abundance of slides and stumbles. Given the shortened dialogue and watered down poetic drive (albeit understandable in an adaptation) the plot gives the impression of a poltergeist that is overwhelming to its host.
That being said, Meryl Streep is a perfect incarnation as the witchy, sable-shrouded and monstrous matriarch, Violet Weston. Streep's interpretation is full and complete and borders the realm of a spiritual possession. Violet is consumed and wizened by pharmaceutical dependence. She has cancer. Far from being retiring, she is a manic, lurching harridan, bent on stripping others of their ego. But Violet is not the only one; such belittling and emotional castration seems a Weston family trait.
Sam Shepard has a good outing as the passive and used up poet Beverly who just opts out and leaves the family, and Julia Roberts is a magnetic and viscerally biting whirling dervish, battling for control of the hereditary masthead. A highlight is the horribly frightening and oppressiveWeston house that is as heavy as it is physically unhinged, skillfully personifying the playwright's gothic intent which remains as timely today as it was for Tennessee Williams or Nathaniel Hawthorne. The windows are completely masked with industrial tape. Consequently, the family mills about in thick dust motes sketchily staggering about as penciled shadows, shades of themselves and with others. This alienation within a frenzied center is the core of many a Letts play, and there is enough of it here. Even though its billed as a comedy, it is not as gallows humored as "Killer Joe." The relatives bite, peck, emasculate, humiliate and shoot absolute bile. The comedy comes from the enforced ruse of a civil dinner under crisis.
A standout is Margo Martindale as a petty manipulator under the guise of the comforter and Abigail Breslin as a laconic, yet surreptitious teen. Everyone is nasty in this bunch. But this is genuine Letts country to be sure and followers of the author will be duly pleased. Even though some of the existential poetry is omitted or given a lightened touch, the film, as a whole entity, is hard to stab at or deflate. The cast and the setting all mix and coalesce in a rare pumpkin roux, capturing the distinctive essence of a Tracy Letts bloodletting that fans of his dysfunction have come to expect and even crave.
Write Ian at firstname.lastname@example.org