Sometimes theatrical plays don’t translate well onto the screen. I suspect, based on my reading of the play (I have not seen the production), that this might be the case with Tracy Letts Pulitzer Prize-winning play, August: Osage County, vs. his movie adaptation.
In the play, the first line of the prologue is revelatory. “Life is very long…” (10) This intensely dark comedy epitomizes the term “baggage” with the unfolding of every single character within the play, and Letts uses their dysfunctional personal and interpersonal dynamics to set the tone in the storyline, which drives the plot forward. This is certainly the case in the film as well. The audience is told that life is long against a backdrop of miles flat Oklahoma fields–fields that seem to go on forever.
There is no doubt that Meryl Streep lives up to her reputation, and executes a brilliant performance playing Violet, the cancer-laden, vicious, pill-popping, abusive, bitter Weston family matriarch. This untamed shrew is at the helm of her entire family’s extreme dysfunction. Despite the amazing performances by Streep, and even with the all-star cast in this adaptation, the film has some issues. Let’s start with the fact that the trailer sets this film up as a comedy, but in no way is this storyline comedic, in fact, it is epitomizes that worst kind of individual and family dysfunction. It’s brutal.
Violet, who is suffering from mouth cancer, spews venomous words in rapid fire against every member of her family–to include her daughters, following her husbands suicide. Violet is toxic and overbearing; she is nothing short of a monster. Her “truth-telling” takes sharing and disclosure to a new level. Julia Roberts plays her eldest daughter Barbara, who is the acorn that didn’t fall too far from the tree. Roberts also delivers a stunning performance, but having two characters that are this “large,” seems to take away from the intensity of the other. Even though I’ve not had the pleasure of seeing August Osage County on stage, I can’t help but believe these two characters, in particular, would be better slated for the stage than the screen.
Some of the themes so present in the play are muddied when adapted over into a film. Such as the disconnect present in a family who are aimlessly going through the motions of life, and none of them are on the same page. At times, it felt contrived. Also, the dinner-table scene goes on and on, and is somewhat stifling.
At the core, this story is about abuse, and generational abuse shared between all the women in this family, and all of the many skeletons that are in their closets.