August: Osage County is a movie as awful as its title. This Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf wannabe is a tired, cliche-ridden, yell-a-thon. Playing like an all-star soap opera from the ’80s, the story is a collection of shocking reveals that illustrate how every member of an Oklahoma family is ripe for a spot on Jerry Springer.
That this is based on Tracy Lett’s Pulitzer Prize winning play is something of an astonishment: I haven’t seen it on stage but, clearly, the play was better. Whatever made it spellbinding on stage is lost. In fact, the only thing that remained is the staginess. The sets look phony, the staging of the actors is stiff (watch how choreographed the dining table attack scene plays out), and the dialogue never stops, though you’ll be praying that everyone in the movie to take mercy on us and just shut up.
You’ve seen variations of this dysfunctional family drama before, as a family meets to pay respects to the passing of the grandfather (Sam Shephard, who luckily leaves the movie after just one scene). We meet the cruel, bullying grandmother, Violet, played by Meryl Streep. Violet and her sister, Mattie (played by the great Margo Martindale) take joy in verbally tearing into every member of the family, while masking their own sins and twisted family secrets that, by film’s end, will be out in the open for everyone. Violet’s eldest daughter, Barbara, played by Julia Roberts, is in a loveless marriage and can barely contain the rage she holds for her mother.
I’ll stop with the synopsis and state that everyone has roles that are so one-note, you barely need a sentence to describe each of them. Abigail Breslin plays a rebellious 14-year old, Ewan Macgregor plays a cheating husband, Dermot Mulroney’s character has bad taste–both in women and pop music–and Juliette Lewis, as Roberts’ sister, talks too much. That’s it. That’s all there is to these characters, whom the actors try and fail to illuminate.
Streep plays a real piece of work and there are intriguing shades to her character. Still, Elizabeth Taylor (whom Streep oddly name-drops) did this much better in Virginia Woolf. Roberts has picked some unfortunate dramatic vehicles and came up short before, but this is the first time I felt embarrassed for her. She sparkles in many of her comedic vehicles but here, she’s like Britney Spears trying to pull off an edgy character in a Neil Labute play.
Try not to cringe as she screams, “Eat your fish, bitch!” or waxes poetic about her vagina. Roberts appeared in the similar (both in terms of story and wretchedness) Fireflies in the Garden but the comparison that comes closest to mind is her work in Closer, where, once again, she looks foolish endlessly spouting the F-word.
Playwright and screenwriter Letts’ Bug made a killer play-turned film but he stumbled with his trying-too-hard Killer Joe last year. Now, he’s made a movie that demonstrates how much he loves Edward Albee’s Virginia Woolf without understanding what made it great.
Here’s a hint, Mr. Letts: it wasn’t having the actors scream their lines at each other for the duration of the second half. What made that play and Mike Nichols’ extraordinary 1966 film version stand the test of time was its dissection of human character. What we get here is stereotypical white trash, hollering over scandalous skeletons unleashed from dusty closets (Incest! Betrayal! Infidelity! Oh my). There’s no payoff and the screenplay oddly lacks a third act. You can hardly call the conclusion an “ending.”
A bizarrely cast Benedict Cumberbatch arguably has the worst of it, playing a child-like idiot. Other than Streep’s admirable fearlessness (the only reason to suffer through this) and a few of Chris Cooper’s scenes, no one walks away triumphant. Not the actors and definitely not the audience.
Score: * (1-5 Star Score)