Dysfunction at a gallop
Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play August: Osage County is the sort of work that makes you take stock of yourself and your life. After seeing this story of a dysfunctional Oklahoma family that’s lorded over by a matriarch that would make Joan Crawford seem like a fit mother, you can’t help but reflect on your own parents, as well as how you might be doing in this “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” role. Hopefully you’ll walk away thinking, “Yes, my parents had their faults but they were nowhere nearly as bad as her!” and “God, please don’t ever let me find myself treating my kids like that!”
While the film adaptation, directed by John Wells, shaves nearly one hour off of the play’s running time, its dramatic core remains. It effectively drives home the notion that, despite our best efforts not to and fervent denials to the contrary, we come to resemble our parents in ways we hope we never would, unwittingly continuing a cycle of behavior that seems inescapable.
Violet Weston (the incomparable Meryl Streep) is the harpy at the center of all of this. She’s suffering from mouth cancer (an effective, if obvious bit of symbolism) and has completely alienated her family. Her husband Beverly (Sam Shepard) has stuck by her, aided by much drink, but finally reaches his limit and goes missing. This puts everyone in a panic and before you know it, members of the Weston clan, all dealing with their own brand of dysfunction, gather round Violet to show support. The eldest daughter Barbara (a never better Julia Roberts) and her estranged husband (Ewan McGregor) with their alienated daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin) show up, as does her sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale) and her husband Charlie (Chris Cooper). It comes as no surprise that the middle daughter Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), who never wandered far from home, comes but everyone is stunned when the black sheep of the family Karen (Juliette Lewis) makes an appearance with her latest boyfriend Steve (Dermot Mulroney) who’s just too slick for his own good. That Charlie and Mattie Fae’s son Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch) arrives late, surprises no one.
It’s quite a crew and it’s no wonder that Wells was able to attract such A-list talent. Letts’ characters are full of contradictions, all-too human flaws and each gets at least one big moment in the spotlight. Needless to say, some deep, dark secrets are revealed during the hot summer days and nights the family share, some of them comical, others tragic, all of them easy to relate to. Even if you’ve been blessed not to have to deal with people as damaged as these, what makes Letts’ story so effective is that, despite the theatricality of some of the characters, he never forgets to bring their humanity to the fore, making them easy to recognize both in ourselves and in others.
If the film has a flaw, it is that it is a bit predictable in its construction. We know one catastrophe after another is going to befall this clan; we end up just waiting for each big reveal to come. However, to be fair, there are at least two secrets that end up being rather surprising and there’s no question that every member of the cast succeeds in sidestepping the sort of stereotypical bits of business you’d expect from their characters and instead grounds them in realistic moments. Without question, the writing and acting in August is of the highest quality, both of which negate its rather creaky premise and somewhat predictable plot.
Contact Chuck Koplinski at firstname.lastname@example.org.