August: Osage County has shades of Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. It's a family drama, emotional and pitiful, with more than a few similarities to O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night. Tracy Letts' Pulitzer Prize winning 2007 play is a riveting drama about a dysfunctional family and their addictive behaviors, but the play, when done well, fares better on stage than, in this instance, screen. Smartly, the film relies on the power of strong, household name actresses who know how to handle movie roles to add the three-dimensional depth that's often lost when plays are transferred to celluloid.
Meryl Street and Julia Roberts are the A-listers who carry the film — and so powerful in some scenes that it almost feels as if they are method acting vampires sucking the energy from their moviegoer victims. It's truly an experience, much like being tossed around on a Tilt-A-Whirl.
Street plays Violet Weston, a pill-popping matriarch who wallows in her own self pity. She's suffering from mouth cancer — an interesting double entendre since what spews from her mouth are metal-coated accusations and passive/aggressive displays of pharmacology induced grandeur.
Her husband, Beverly (Sam Shepard) has his own dysfunction and his early disappearance in the beginning of the film is more cause for Violet's personal drama. Her three daughters, now grown and having fled from their caustic mother, return to the Oklahoma homestead to search for their missing father.
Oldest daughter, Barbara (Julia Roberts), lives in Colorado and is secretly separated from her husband, Bill (an uninspiring performance by Ewan McGregor, who seems more concerned with perfecting an American accent than acting), who accompanies his "wife" along with their rebellious daughter, Jean (Abigail Breslin). Youngest daughter, Karen (Juliette Lewis in one of her best roles yet), brings her latest future husband (Dermot Mulroney), Steve, a true cad who tries to seduce Barbara's teen daughter.
Middle daughter, Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) has been her parents' caregiver and her resentment has led her to the sensitivity of another family member whose spirit, too, has been squashed by the family's venom. It's another subplot that creates even more turmoil in this family that's layered with deep, dark secrets.
While the play depended less on star vehicles to drive its emotional storm, the film chooses the right powerhouses to ignite the fuel. While another actress could have played Barbara, this is a role for Streep, who gets to pull out all of her acting stops. Looking harrowed and almost unrecognizable in her first entrance as she stumbles down the stairs, Streep goes for broke in the first five minutes, barking one minute, then cooing the next as she introduces herself to a new maid (Misty Upham) who, in real life, would've run for the hills after five minutes of Violet's vitriol.
Roberts shows her muster as she takes on Streep, especially as the play's arc turns the madness over to Barbara, who appears to be following in her mother's self-wallowing footsteps.
Late in the movie, when the two go at it like two jousters not wearing armour, it's one of the best acting duels ever captured on screen. The two use every ounce of technique they've ever learned to pull of the coup.
August: Osage County is filled with moments like these. This is a movie (and play) meant to stir emotion, and stir the soul's pot it does.
The fault of the film version that made the play so impactful, however, is its direction. John Wells doesn't help his actors find depth that will align them with the audience. There's no one in this movie that you hope succeeds. It is as if his leading ladies took their scripts home, read through them, memorized their lines, and came back and Wells called "action." There are plenty of missed opportunities. When Barbara performs an intervention and raids the family home of Violet's pills, you almost wished she had intervened on Wells' behalf, too.
But August: Osage County shouldn't be missed. There are some historical acting lessons to be learned from the pros here despite the film's many flaws. And that is worth the price of admission.