September 11, 2013



The writer/producer/director John Wells made his reputation as the showrunner of ER, and he’s known as one of the most consistent, professional producers in the network business, with impeccable shows like The West Wing and Third Watch to his credit.  In recent years, though, he’s been spending a lot of his time in the more rambunctious world of Showtime’s Shameless, telling looser, wilder tales about a dysfunctional family.  One might have hoped that this touch would inform his film of Tracy Letts’s Pulitzer-winning, Tony-winning AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY, which concerns one of the most dysfunctional families in recent memory.  But the adaptation, even though the script is credited to Letts himself and much of its vitriol has been retained, feels too sedate and respectable, too bound by tradition, as though Pulitzer-Winner Tony-Winner had become part of the title.

The plot remains the same.  During a brutally hot Oklahoma summer, Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard), husband of Violet (Meryl Streep) has gone missing, and Violet has summoned her three daughters to join her for the vigil.  Barbara (Julia Roberts) has come from Colorado with husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) and 14-year old daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin).  Karen (Juliette Lewis) and fiancee Steve (Dermot Mulroney) are in from Florida.  And Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) has stayed close to home.  Also on hand:  Violet’s sister Mattie Faye (Margo Martindale), and Mattie Faye’s husband Charles (Chris Cooper) and son “Little Charles” (Benedict Cumberbatch).  Every one of these people has something to hide, whether scandal or long-simmering resentment, and the person who knows all the secrets is Violet.  Violet herself, who uses the excuse of mouth cancer to justify an out-of-control addiction to prescription pain medication, is a wretched, relentless horror–albeit an often hilarious one–whose only pleasure in life is making her family jump and suffer, which she takes particular pleasure in doing when the news turns grim.

Adapting August to the screen was always going to be difficult, because the play runs over 3 hours even without intermissions.  At least an hour has been cut out for the big screen, and while this major editing has been intelligent, in the sense that the storylines and characters are still coherent, what’s been lost is the sheer epic size of the enterprise.  (You could doubtless cut Long Day’s Journey Into Night down to 2 hours, too, but what would be the point?)  An example: the play began with a monologue by Beverly that went on and on, telling you all you needed to know about him and his family.  It made perfect sense to cut that down to a few sentences here, but as a result, Beverly’s presence isn’t felt over the rest of the action, the way it is on stage.  Violet and Barbara have mostly retained their set-pieces, since they’re tha main antagonists and are played by the biggest stars, while the supporting roles have been sometimes drastically slimmed down–again, a perfectly logical move, but one that makes characters like Mattie Faye, Bill, and the Charleses into sidebars, present now only for the reveals they offer here or there.

Part of the impact of August was that it was so big–there was so much eloquent, furious unhappiness on display that it felt like more than the soap opera that in one sense it was.  That’s not the case anymore. The balance of the piece feels skewed (the dinner-table sequence where Violet takes aim at everyone is the central set-piece of both play and movie, but since it’s one of the few scenes to run at almost full length, it now takes up what feels like a quarter of the total running time), and the grueling, exhausting scale of the warfare between the family members is gone.

That still leaves, to be sure, plenty of terrific dialogue, some depth-charge plot twists, and a lot of tremendous acting.  Streep chews into her vicious dialogue like a carnivore who’s been captive on Vegan Island for 20 years.  She has a monologue about Violet’s own horrible childhood that would stop the show for an ovation if the audience were live.  Roberts, who’s tried and failed to be convincingly mean-spirited before, does some of the best work of her career here, wearily and spitefully locking horns with La Streep the same way Barbara does with Violet and absolutely holding her own.   (It’s not Roberts’s fault that she’s victimized by a softening of the play’s original ending that was reportedly imposed by distributor Harvey Weinstein, and which may or may not still be the ending when the film opens in December.)  Martindale, Cooper and Julianne Nicholson peel back every furious and pathetic layer of their characters, however abbreviated, although Lewis, Mulroney and Breslin are reduced to roles that are now one-note, and McGregor barely registers.

Wells’s direction is altogether too composed; he seems afraid to mix it up, to let this family’s bile be cartoonish the way it is on Shameless.  Adriano Goldman’s photography is dark-toned and polite, with little feel for the unearthly heat that’s afflicting all of the characters (Violet doesn’t believe in air conditioning)–it’s as though he’d never seen Haskell Wexler’s churning photography for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, one of the influences on the play.  Stephen Mirrione’s editing is in the classic Hollywood prestige drama style, and the music by Gustavo Santaolalla adds little.

August: Osage County is one of the great American plays of the last decade, but filming it as a classic does it no favors.  It’s a play about miserable people who treat each other badly; they don’t use kid gloves, and the filmmakers shouldn’t have either.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."