The Weston family takes dysfunction to a whole new level in John Wells' August: Osage County, based on Tracy Letts' Pulitzer and Tony winning stage production, and adapted for the screen by the playwright himself.
I use the term “adapted” very loosely, because August: Osage County demonstrates very little adaptation in its transition between mediums. The only significant alteration is a divisive new ending tacked on by notoriously editorial executive Harvey Weinstein, which doesn't exactly cast a vote of confidence in Letts' originally dour conclusion. But by most accounts from the Broadway crowd who were fortunate enough to see the play in its intended form, the two-act structure and abundance of spiny dialogue therein has been preserved for the film, virtually to the letter.
One could make a case that such an unwavering transcription is justifiable when the source material is strong enough. Indeed, the caustic back-and-forth exhibited in August: Osage County is evidence of a magnificent feat of character writing, which is what made its initial theatrical incarnation such a success. But what Letts and Wells fail to avail themselves of here is the ability of cinema to communicate without words; the power that comes from showing, and not telling. But every single nuance is spoken in this piece... no, worse yet: Every single nuance is ACTED in bold red letters.
I can only imagine how sensational it would be to see the play's centrepiece dinner sequence performed on stage, where the expedient exposition of multiple backstories and character arcs in a compressed amount of time is an artful necessity. On screen, it eventually starts to drag, with even grabbiest performances wearing thin as they run out of scenery to devour. The script says they were eating chicken at that dinner, but there was lots of ham on the side.
Nearly every player reaches for the rafters as if gasping for what little residual oxygen is left on set. This is never truer than whenever Meryl Streep – playing the doped-up, venom-tongued Weston matriarch suffering from wickedly ironic cancer of the mouth – takes centre stage (and a stage is where this performance belongs). She convulses and slurs and makes sure every affected line reading is heard in row ZZZ, forcing her fellow cast mates to play catch-up. Not that she isn't entertaining, but it overwhelms the intimacy of the camera.
Thankfully, there are exceptions to be relished. Chris Cooper develops an earnest, humble everyman persona that shines like an oasis in the desert. In a movie full of loud performances being drowned out by other loud performances, his steady reservedness allows his one emotive moment of righteous frustration to truly register. But it ultimately can't compensate for the rest of the cast's overacting.
** out of ****