I had prepared myself for this one, having posed a question to playwright Tracy Letts during an audience Q&A round (the selected question, along with Letts’ response can be read here: https://sashankkini.wordpress.com/2013/11/28/my-question-to-playwright-tracy-letts-for-august-osage-county-live-qa-with-cast-and-crew/).
Pruning a three-hour tragicomedy into two for film also calls for adjustments to the resultant footage. In simple words, care should be taken to equalize the ‘just-noticeable difference’ due to reduction in material. Maybe it was Weinstein’s decision to shave off scenes that in his opinion added little value to the overall film. However, the cuts prick.
Let’s consider a scene in the play towards the finish in which the distraught Barbara, Violet’s eldest daughter, attempts to kiss Sheriff Gilbeau but ultimately withdraws; this happens two weeks after her ex-husband Bill leaves the house with their daughter Jean. The film slings out this sequence entirely and moves on to the ‘catfish’ catfight between her, Violet and Ivy. A turning point for Barbs, the scene also justified a previous conversation involving Gilbeau between Barbara and Jean. Maybe when Roberts and Breslin were performing the scene, they held the impression Gilbeau would appear later into the film. Roberts adds a weight to her words that is balanced by Gilbeau’s appearance. But since he’s missing, Roberts’ tone should’ve been slightly different, something that didn’t mislead us to believe he’d come.
Certain deletions impact character dynamics as well. The film hardly showcases Violet interacting with her granddaughter Jean, while the play teases Jean’s voluptuous boobs with jocular remarks from Violet (as well as Mattie Fae, which has been retained). The “Hollywoodish” ending (a shift of focus from Violet to Barbara) may have worked had the film been Julia’s journey from the beginning.
The screenplay, also penned by Letts, hangs in mid-air motionless, like it’s stuck in the plains, in the sense that its confused about what it should take in to maintain the flow, what it could leave out to avoid appearing stagey and what it can add to make it more cinematic. Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, constructed in myriads of concurrent and converging storylines, threaded a satisfying storyline for each major character while tying it all to the major themes of the film. The only characters lucky enough to get a special treatment in August Osage County are Violet, Barbara, Mattie Fae and Charles, Ivy and Karen. The others, especially Barbara’s husband Bill, Karen’s fiancé Steve, Jean, Little Charles and Johnna, the native-American maid are slovenly handled. The issue of Native Americans driven out of their country by settlers could’ve been explored more deeply on film. But expect for scattered references and a simplistic symbolism on the wall, little effort has been taken to delve into that angle.
The biggest irritant is the camera sitting through wordy, rehearsed monologues adapted too faithfully to sparkle on film. When Meryl browbeats Ivy for not wearing make-up, the camera cuts back and forth between the two, selecting the same position every time. The rehearsed nature, devoid of the improvised spontaneity visible in Altman films, adds to the laggardness. The actors are a touch too sombre to possess a vibrant volatility demanded during the dinner sequence. The screenplay wants the best of both stage and cinema and succeeds in neither.
Criticism 2: Acting Style
(Contd in part 3)