August: Osage County (2014) – Review

Producing giant Harvey Weinstein recommended watching August: Osage County at Christmas, a time generally associated with being surrounded by family, so as to strengthen potentially weak bonds with your loved ones.  He may have a point, in a certain regard, as no matter how fractured your relationship with your family may or may not be, nothing is as awkward and venomous as the reunion on display in Tracy Letts’ adaptation of his own stage play, and it will no doubt lead you all to feel some sense of relief – perhaps even pride – with how sane you all emerge in comparison.  On the other hand you could just stick on It’s A Wonderful Life, because let me give you some advice: this really isn’t the kind of film you’ll want to snuggle up to with Santa just around the corner.

The selling point of the film is clearly its A-list cast.  Everybody who’s anybody is in this thing, from accomplished greats like Meryl Streep and Chris Cooper right through to promising up-and-comers like Abigail Breslin, with each and every one of them at the top of their game, sinking their collective teeth into meaty, dialogue-riddled roles.  It’s unsurprising that it attracted so many big names because the script – an undeniably impressive piece of work – is essentially an actor’s goldmine; it offers no back seats, instead allowing pretty much everyone involved tackle something important or worthwhile, whether it’s Streep’s chance to fire off her mouth as a poisonous, pill-popping matriarch, Julianne Nicholson’s subtle and subverting Ivy who tiptoes around her family with a narratively pivotal secret, or even Benedict Cumberbatch getting the chance to show off his more timid side.  It’s a simple, straight-forward narrative that requires nothing more for acceleration than its actors to act, but there lies one of the film’s problems: it’s clearly a story designed for the stage, and it appears to have made little effort to escape from such routes.

Getting Letts to adapt the screenplay is potentially a good idea. He knows the play in and out, he knows the character motives and themes and ideas that need to be explored, he won’t have lost much in translation, and he obviously cares deeply about the whole thing – which is always noticeable. But there’s an underlying negative impact of having an original writer adapt their work for a new medium: they don’t want to change anything.  Such is the reason George R.R. Martin is only allowed to write one episode of Game Of Thrones per season.  Perhaps Letts cares too deeply about his creation, which has led to a lack of alteration required for taking a story to the screen.  The character dynamics and snappy dialogue remain, which is great because it’s all very exciting and funny and neurotic, and the bridge between the humour and serious stuff is really finely balanced,  but it’s missing one key element: it’s not cinematic. At all.  Even if there had been at least a few extras or background characters (of which there are literally none), we would still feel like we’re watching a stage play on the screen.  Perhaps it’s not a damning problem, but there’s a definite sense of, “Why am I not just watching the play?”.

The lack of being cinematic, though, isn’t even the reason the film fails to make the jump from good to great.  There’s much to admire in August: Osage County, even if it’s nothing more than the seductive Oklahoman landscapes, but as rich as these characters and impressive the actors portraying them are, it’s just extraordinarily difficult to spend time in their vitriolic company.  At least we can merely sit back and watch them scream at each other, able to escape an any time, rather than be trapped in the house with them.

★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

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