Works of fiction often struggle when crossing from one medium to another. You’ll often hear “The book was better” when leaving a movie theater, or see a lousy television show adapted from a film.
Some pull it off as “MASH” was both a great movie and TV show and “The Godfather” worked well on the page and on the screen, but these are the exceptions that prove the rule.
Plays that become movies have their own particular pitfalls to overcome and unfortunately “August: Osage County” trips on nearly every single one of them.
On paper, it looks like a slam dunk. The play is outstanding and has the Pulitzer Prizes and Tony Awards to prove it. Playwright Tracy Letts wrote the screenplay and the cast is packed to the gills with A-list talent, but the movie never quite clicks into place.
I was fortunate enough to be able to see the touring production of “August: Osage County” in 2010 with the great Estelle Parsons in the lead role of Violet Weston, the matriarch of the most dysfunctional Oklahoma family this side of an episode of “Cops.”
The trials and tribulations of the Weston family are broad and sweeping as decades of mental, physical, emotional, and chemical abuse all come to bear when Violet’s husband, Beverly (played in the film by Sam Shepard), goes missing.
On stage, all of the family’s bickering, blowups, and tragic revelations of Greek-like proportion are played to the hilt and with enough force to ensure that even the guy sitting in the very last row gets smacked in the forehead.
The problem is that Letts dials nothing back and the intimacy of the screen turns these larger-than-life characters into ranting and raving cartoons.
In the movie, Violet is played by Meryl Streep, who proudly walks the earth as our greatest living actress. The trouble is that with Violet’s constant pill-popping and Machiavellian manipulations, Streep is way too subtle for a role this showy. There are times you can almost feel her yanking back on the throttle as if she’s trying to control a runaway stagecoach.
Violet and Beverly have three daughters, the eldest of which, Barbara, is played by Julia Roberts. The relationship between Violet and Barbara makes up the heart of the story as Barbara desperately tries to break the generational cycle of crazy even though it has already disrupted her relationship with her husband, Bill (Ewan McGregor), and daughter, Jean (Abigail Breslin).
Roberts does an OK job even though at times she seems out of her depth, cranking it up to 11 while Streep is trying her best to keep it at zero.
The other cast members, including Chris Cooper, Margo Martindale, Durmot Mulroney, Juliette Lewis, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Julianne Nicholson, each do an excellent job of stepping up to the plate when their number is called.
The other major problem here is that director John Wells (a writer and producer whose only other feature was the ensemble corporate drama “The Company Men”) never plays up his cinematic advantages and his static camera makes it feel like you are just watching the play with a camera pointed at it.
“August: Osage County” is not a bad movie, it’s just disappointing for simply being good when there is so much potential greatness just lying around. It’s really only worth checking out if you are looking for something to make you feel better about your own messed-up family.
“August: Osage County” is rated R for language including sexual references, and for drug material.