It's difficult to express exactly what went wrong with August: Osage County. But the short answer is: everything.
Cinema and theater are different storytelling mediums, and it's not fair to expect the filmed version of Tracy Letts' Pulitzer-winning stage comedy to be a literal reflection of the source material. But with a piece as celebrated as A:OC one at least expects to catch some of the unique spirit and a glimmer of what made the piece so damn compelling in the first place. And, in spite of a typically solid piece of acting by Meryl Streep and some truly fine performances from supporting players like Chris Cooper, Juliette Lewis, Margo Martindale, and Julianne Nicholson, that just doesn't happen.
Director John Wells clearly had a game plan for "opening up" Letts' claustrophobic play: Shoot more scenes in pickup trucks. Maybe he thought he was re-remaking Footloose, or shooting a country music video, or a life-affirming television special about one woman's quest for four-wheel-drive independence.
The things that are lost in squeezing this three-hour epic into two hours of caustic conversation are the things that made the original, well, epic. The shocking secret discovered by not-quite-kissing cousins Little Charles and Ivy hasn't been an original plot point for a few thousand years. What happens after that is what makes A:OC a play for the ages. But that, too, is missing from the film, and there's nothing left but meanness, awkwardness, and monologues that feel like monologues.
I was perhaps too excited when I first heard that Sam Shepard would appear in the role of Beverly Weston, the father whose disappearance sets the stage for the ugly family reunion at the heart of August: Osage County. Set in Oklahoma during a blazing hot summer just before Weston's drowning/suicide, Letts' story plays out like the middle-class answer to one of Shepard's own family dramas. Scoring the actor/Pulitzer-winner who penned such clear A:OC antecedents as Buried Child and Curse of the Starving Class, and who basically created the "Beverly Weston-type," should have been a real coup. But, in another example of the creative team not seeming to know what they had, the part was shrunk into irrelevance.
Speaking of irrelevance, poor Benedict Cumberbatch was clearly cast because of his heat and not because he makes any sense in the role of Little Charles. He's just awful, and it's not remotely his fault.
The TV is always on at my grandparents' house, where my parents now live, and where all the children and grandchildren gather on special occasions. MythBusters marathons, classic movies, and reality TV provide both backdrop and soundtrack for holiday gatherings, loud but loving affairs compared to dinner with the unrelentingly unhappy Weston family of August: Osage County. In heavy rotation this Christmas, a short commercial featured Streep — as the film's unpleasant matriarch — complaining about Julia Roberts' straight hair. "You look like a lesbian," Streep quipped over and over again.
"What is this August: Osage County about?" I wondered, even though I'd seen the play twice and had caught the film in November when it screened at the Indie Memphis film festival. Generation gaps? Gender identity? Is it a Steel Magnolias sequel? Didn't Shelby die?
Nothing about Streep's isolated (and not very funny) zinger was representative of the story I knew reasonably well. Who was the commercial supposed to reach? What kind of response was anticipated? I couldn't answer any of these questions, and I honestly don't think anybody connected with the film could have either. Nobody from greenlight to marketing had any idea how to sell this complicated story, least of all the director.
August: Osage County
Opens Friday, January 10th