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Home » Culture and Criticism

26/31: August, Osage County

Submitted by on January 26, 2015 – 7:30 AM8 Comments
Photo: Claire Folger / The Weinstein Company

Photo: Claire Folger / The Weinstein Company

I wanted to like August, Osage County more than I did — and I did like it fairly well, considering — because of Tracy Letts.

Tracy Letts is pretty much my favorite thing on Homeland lately, and he's married to Carrie Coon, my favorite thing about several properties. The Lettoons household is my fantasy famous double-date at the moment, as a matter of fact, so I sat back with my knitting and waited for the company to dazzle. It did, but A,OC probably works better as a stage production (I've never seen it on the boards) — not because the story felt too static or confined and didn't expand into its new medium enough, which can happen, but because live theater requires a stronger and more committed suspension of disbelief. You've physically gotten up, F-trained to the theater district, rushed through your pasta, obediently unwrapped your lozenge, looked up the company's Law & Orders in Playbill. The cinema is different, I think. I don't have data to prove this, but for a variety of reasons — you paid more for the ticket; actors could biff lines/faint — I would posit that we believe more in a stage production's world-building because it's harder and more involved to believe.

Anyway, the hell do I know, but despite the careful selection by Letts of the one occasion on which these people, who resent and have stunted each other, would voluntarily gather; despite a fiery, "you can't quit, I'm firing you" performance from Meryl Streep as Violet and very good turns by the rest of the cast; despite excellent writing on the dialogue and pacing level, it still felt like a series of vignettes, not disconnected exactly but somewhat exercise-y, like, now the matriarch talks about the Christmas boots…move some pieces…now the revelation about Little Charles, and the other revelation…now Barb is running away in her pajamas. And I feel like it would have had more cumulative power on the stage. As it is, I don't entirely buy some character beats, like that Ivy kept her cancer a secret from everyone except Little Charlie, or that Karen even comes from this family. It's a good character sketch, and Juliette Lewis brings the right breathless don't-look-down quality to it; I believe this person exists, I just don't think she came from these people.

The film's enjoyable, though, because of the company. Lewis seems to have dashed in with one heel on from another story, but it's interesting to see what she does with it. Julia Roberts as the acidic Barb hits her notes a little hard, but she's clearly enjoying herself. Margo Martindale is always the bomb, and that "feel my butt sweat, feel it!" exchange with Chris Cooper at the beginning is great, with her laughing all "yeah, I know." I didn't care for Ewan McGregor in this, but I feel like I haven't cared for him in anything in a while, and I don't know what it is; he's a bit miscast here, maybe, or we're meant to associate him more strongly with Sam Shepard's Beverly than we do, or compare him more unfavorably? I don't know. Doesn't quite work, he didn't register well for me.

I can't really say it works entirely coherently as a story; I can't say it got jobbed out of any Oscars last year; it's still a solid two hours, and I'll still totally check it out if it goes up anywhere. (And the double date is still on, hee.)

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  • attica says:

    I think Julia Roberts is ill-advised to take roles like this. I can see the appeal, what with her rom-com-heavy CV, but she doesn't quite have the deftness or timing to make a character like Barb both bitter and root-for-able. Her 'eat the fucking fish' bit made me say to the screen, yo, ease up on the F-bomb, there, sport! And I love an F-bomb, a lot! (Margo would have had me proposing with that speech, for instance.)

    All the men cast seem like an afterthought, which is a shame given their respective skills. I was more charmed by the story of Cumberbatch seeking out piano lessons from a nice local lady during filming than I was by his turn. Not bad, just not memorable. I'd even forgotten McGregor was in it! Yikes.

  • ferretrick says:

    "it still felt like a series of vignettes, not disconnected exactly but somewhat exercise-y"

    I hated, hated, HATED this movie. I agree with this comment wholeheartedly. I really think Letts started the whole process by thinking "how can I pack every current hot button mental issue into one play?" And then he didn't quit till they were all in there-drugs, alcoholism, pedophilia, incest, the list goes on and on. And I usually love dysfunctional family movies-but I never saw one ring so false. These weren't human beings, they were items on Letts' checklist of fuckedupness.

    I haven't seen the play performed, but I understand on stage it's played as black comedy rather than straight drama. Maybe that works better and the director just misunderstood the material. But I know I didn't believe one note of the movie.

  • Louise Norris says:

    I did see the play, on B'way. I think your comments about play vs. film are spot-on, and there's even something more with this particular work: the stage set. The set was extraordinary — a three-story house with the first floor even giving glimpses of rooms behind the main living/dining space. The detail was amazing* and the entire space drew the audience in and helped maintain that suspension of disbelief you wrote about.

    I haven't seen the film, but I had already imagined I'd be disappointed at the disjointed-ness of inside and outside scenes and multiple camera angles.

  • Jaybird says:

    Oh, the good Lord knows how I hate Julia Roberts. I hate her like I would hate someone who had sicced a colony of telemarketing Jehovah's Witness tarantulas with Ebola upon my household. Hate. Hate like I hate okra, and raisins, and mint-flavored frigging anything. I can't watch this movie because she's in it. That's how much I hate her. I won't go near Smyrna, GA, because she's from there. I don't let my hair follow its natural tendency toward going red and wavy because it reminds me of her. She's one of the worst people I can imagine.

    I might need to step back for a minute.

  • frogprof12 says:

    Oh, whew, ferretrick, I thought I was the only person in the world who hated this movie to the extent I did. There were parts where I thought it would redeem itself for me, but … nope. And you've explained why so much better than I have been able to.
    Plus, like every Flannery O'Connor story and Carson McCullers novel I've ever read, it just made me sweat. And I hate sweating.

  • Stanley says:

    I haven't seen the movie, and I don't plan to, but I did see the original run of the play at the Steppenwolf in Chicago. I can see how it wouldn't translate well to the screen – the "opening up" that is supposed to be done when they turn a play into a movie would be a disservice with this material. As Louise Norris points out, the set was a big part of the impact of the play; it reinforced the claustrophia, oppression and lack of ability to escape the house and by extension membership in the family – expanding the world would only dilute that.

    And movies make things too "real" – the play operates as a heightened reality which you can appreciate through the artifice of the stage, and a movie operates too much in a "real," tangible world. Because on the page, yes, it's like a ridiculous, cliched amalgam of crazy dysfunctional family high drama, but in the hothouse atmosphere of the stage (and played for black comedy, which seems to have been somewhat lost in the film version), it worked.

  • Meg says:

    (Sorry I'm so late in commenting, I'm behind in my RSS feed.)

    As a theatre person, I haven't liked many of the movie versions of plays. A play's performance is unique and interactive, by necessity, and a movie just can't replicate that experience. Also, movies aren't usually shot in the same sequence as the final product. A play builds the performance through the time of the show, even in non-linear narrative structures, and a movie doesn't have the same effect.

  • AndCap says:

    Like Stanley, I saw the original run of the play at Steppenwolf in Chicago. I love Letts' work on the stage — Killer Joe and Superior Donuts are both terrific — and August was no exception. I've also seen parts of the movie on cable, and, when I did, I didn't even recognize it as the same work/story. It was absolutely played as a black comedy on the stage, and, as others have noted, the set and the claustrophobic nature of the stage affect the impact of the play dramatically. The play also seemed to have a much better flow than the parts of the movie I've seen do. This work just did not benefit from being translated to a film.

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