(This is the first part of the review of John Wells’ August Osage County, starring Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Margo Martindale, Chris Cooper, Julianne Nicholson, Juliette Lewis, Ewan McGregor, Abigail Breslin, Dermot Mulroney, Misty Upham, Sam Shepard, Benedict Cumberbatch and “catfish”. Part 2 to be uploaded soon)
August: Osage County, ripe in contemporary kitchen-sink melodrama in the style and flavor of an out-and-out explosive Tennessee Williams work (all vintage movie lovers, I urge all you to catch Elia Kazan’s film A Streetcar Named Desire) deserved a David O Russell down-and-dirty hard-edged treatment bundled with Robert Altman’s spontaneity and Paul Thomas Anderson’s virtuosic vision. Instead fertilized by a less-known John Wells, primarily known for his role as an executive producer in television series ER, The West Wing and Shameless (he’s just got directorial credits for one film called The Company Men, scoring a decent 67% on Rotten Tomatoes), the cinematic adaptation of Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer-Prize Winning play (hence the film could boast of winning an ‘award’ already before it’d won one) lacks a language and voice to hold its own in a year resounding with masterful efforts like Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, Russell’s The American Hustle, Greengrass’ Captain Phillips, Farhadi’s The Past, Cuaron’s Gravity, Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, Jonze’s Her etc. Little films need to pogo big to register a spot in the massively crowded movie market, and I can think of at least three titles on the fly whose strengths haven’t been tasered by limited finance – Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, Sean Durkin’s Martha May Marcy Marlene, and Paddy Considine’s Tyrannosaur. Osage County, unlike these films, puts on a less-than stellar show under Wells solemn, courtierly, risk-free treatment. With all the luminous and sometimes breathtaking display of acting from an assorted bunch of talents, how did this movie end up? Well, plain. Or, in Violet’s own words: Ehhhhh!
Let’s analyze why this picture came to be. George Clooney and Harvey Weinstein are two of its producers; Clooney’s done The Descendants, which also dealt with aftermath of someone’s death (not technically death but coma and eventual demise) while Weinstein hoped for a winning prestige production. The latter’s deified trump card Meryl snagged another meaty role (rare for women, as she repeatedly asserts). Julia Roberts flushed in excitement on announcing she’s working with Streep. The rest, from McGregor (Amazing to watch Streep at work) to Breslin (I was just so like excited, and like, scared, and like…), were keen to work with these two premier ladies. Tracy Letts’ play was chosen for its popular and honored reputation. John Wells was chosen so he could be bossed around by Streep’s demand for acting liberties and Weinstein’s demand for cuts. Shooting took place over a short time span of three-four weeks, and subsequent test screenings led to much editing and revisions. And as the awards reveal, almost every single nomination is for the acting category, either for Streep or Roberts or the ensemble. In a few months, unless Newt Gingrich turns out right (he tweeted ‘August: Osage County is a brilliant film… you will never forget it), most audiences will talk about the good stuff like Hustle and Wall Street and ‘that Meryl Streep’ performance.
You hop into a wonderful film from scene one and are ferried around on a perfect, bump-free ride. An hour and fifteen minutes are taken for August: Osage County to finally let you in. The big ball of past chokes the film till that point, and you’re confounded as to what to anticipate until a major plot development turns up (at least for me) after a big reveal. That’s sorted in the remaining run-time, that is to say, less than half the runtime. The preceding events lack spontaneity, those involving the death of Beverley Weston, the defeated patriarch of the long-dispersed Weston family, and the dysfunctional family’s dreaded reunion that culminates in an fiery, uproarious dinner table ‘truth telling’ sequence i.e. Pandora’s box in the sentient form of Violet Weston, the matriarch lashing out at any unwilling target, especially her 40-plus daughters Barbara, Ivy and Karen for their “ungratefulness and neglect ”. You detect invisible stage directions scribbled at the top corners of the screen which are manipulating the story instead of an organic flow. And I’d like to preempt any accusations of ignorance from readers who believe I’ve not read the play by saying that I read it the day I learnt it was to be adapted to film.
Here’s my first criticism: ‘faithful adaptation’.