Friday, December 27, 2013

The Summer Of Our Discontent

Year: 2013
Director: John Wells
Cast: Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor
Run Time: 2 hours 1 minute
MPAA Rating: R

Typically, when adapting a play for the silver screen, a director will take advantage of the action not being required by theatrical necessity to take place in mainly just one room by either expanding the setting or utilizing filmic tricks to expand the narrative universe. 

In the 1986 musical adaptation Little Shop of Horrors, Frank Oz keeps the location consistent but uses various imaginative flourishes like fantasy sequences to keep the film alive and makes great use of inherently cinematic close-ups to show details of the story a theatrical audience wouldn't be able to get.

On film, Noises Off... becomes a cross-country journey of madcap proportions and Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead explores every intimate corner of Hamlet's universe.

In August: Osage County, based on the play of the same name by Tracy Letts, director John Wells makes the executive decision to do absolutely nothing. One gets the sense that what we see onscreen is the play as directly transcribed by a particularly dutiful screenwriter (who upon closer inspection turns out to be Tracy Letts himself, so maybe not so dutiful). 

As a man whose directorial credits up til now have only included 9 episodes of ER and one feature film three years ago, perhaps it was wise not to tool around with the script too much and to let the actors speak for themselves. With a powerhouse cast like this, this isn't a sin but the film itself feels as musty and dim as the house it takes place in.

But Meryl Streep.

This meandering family drama isn't so much a narrative as it is a showcase for today's brightest Hollywood talent. Everybody gets a chance to let their gray hair show and strip themselves of their star personas to bare their souls onscreen. This is the primary gift of August: Osage County, and it's not one to spit upon.

Meryl Streep stars as Violet Westin, the pill-popping cancer-ridden matriarch of a royally screwed up family. When her husband, the alcoholic poet Beverly (Sam Shepard), commits suicide, the extended family gathers for the funeral.

The visitors include Violet's sister Mattie Fae Aiken (Margo Martindale), her irritable husband Charlie (Chris Cooper), and their son Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch). Little Charles has a secret (something not uncommon to this family) - he's in love with the beautiful Ivy (Julianne Nicholson). Their relationship gives him a great deal of happiness, but the only problem is that she happens to be his cousin.

As Ivy tries to hide her incestuous tryst, so does her sister Barbara (Julia Roberts) try to hide her crumbling marriage with her unfaithful husband Bill (Ewan McGregor). And Barbara's daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin) tries to hide the fact that all she really wants to do is smoke pot with her Aunt Karen (Juliette Lewis)'s new boyfriend Steve (Dermot Mulroney), a sketchy gentleman at the best of times.

Basically the kissing' cousins have the most stable relationship in the entire film.

The cast does a uniformly terrific job bringing their characters to life (Cumberbatch, Nicholson, and Margo Martindale especially, although Meryl Streep's performance is of course unmatched), and in fact most if not all problems with August: Osage County are at the script level, if only because everything else resolutely refuses to get up to anything remotely interesting.

In fact, the few occasions where the other filmic elements peek up their tender heads, they seem to be actively conspiring against the performances. A key emotional point that is central to Meryl Streep's drug-addled breakdown is overtaken by shrieking sound design, an element that hadn't come into play before and wouldn't again, as if being punished for interjecting.

As the Westin family grapples with their manifold personal issues, tensions bubble and rise to a boil at a massive dinner table scene that probably lasted for an entire act in the original play. It is a monumental achievement in extended scene editing and provides a fantastic stopping off point, bringing all the interpersonal conflicts to a climax and exploding in a firework display-worthy exhibition of film performance.

Unfortunately the story has the tenacity to continue for a good 30 minutes beyond this point. The plot meanders, tossed like a beach ball between minor characters, of which there are too many too keep track of and fully flesh out. The film overextends itself in trying to showcase as many actors as possible and results in the sidelining of even the most important characters (Meryl Streep - duh - and Julia Roberts) for up to ten minutes at a time.

Pictured here deep in discussion about topics that really should have had more screentime than Abigail Breslin getting high.

It can't really juggle everything adequately and as such loses anything like a "theme" or a "conclusion," both of which are privileges reserved for more coherent stories. The story doesn't end so much as it peters out, but at least the final act has one solid scene - a confrontation between Violet, Barbara, and Ivy where the three women duke it out in a rampage of acting that culminates in my favorite line ever: "EAT THE FISH, BITCH!"

So the film definitely isn't a waste of time, but all the dramatics fade to vapor when the script turns up the heat and finds that it never really had anything to say in the first place. Definitely one to catch if you're in the mood to watch underused older Hollywood women eat it up, but it is a decidedly uneven piece of narrative cinema.

TL;DR: August: Osage County is a powder keg of great performers, but falls beneath the weight of a clunky script.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 963

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