Upstairs, Downstairs
By Michael Koresky

August: Osage County
Dir. John Wells, U.S., The Weinstein Company

This was the stage layout for the Weston home in Tracy Letts’s August: Osage County as it appeared on Broadway: a three-story structure with an enormous pitched roof, surrounded by darkness, but illuminated from within, sliced open like a doll’s house. The living room’s ratty old couch sits center stage on ground level, staring out at us; like the dining table to the left and the unkempt porch area to the right it’s a locus of possible familial communion but a little too shabby and unattended to be totally inviting. Two levels of stairs, zigzagging in opposite directions loom smack dab in the middle of the stage behind the couch, connecting this wider downstairs area to two more claustrophobic areas: a second-floor bedroom tucked away to the left and a conspicuously central attic bedroom. The eye is naturally drawn to this top floor, which appears to us as a perfect triangle. For an audience member, the thrill of a play is partly in the way it presents us with spaces waiting to be filled, all pregnant with meaning even before the first line has been uttered; this attic is perhaps the most ominous of all. And as Letts’s play goes on to prove, this room is indeed the most crucial. It’s the heart of a house that’s lost its heart—a place that promises refuge but only provides a smaller prison. Letts’s play begins and ends here. John Wells’s film version of August: Osage County forgoes making this room—or any of its rooms, really—essential to its emotional landscape.

A movie need not ape the look and feel of a play, but the comparison is crucial in this case. By recalibrating the dynamics of Letts’s play from spaces to faces, from an existential absurdity to a physical realism, the film loses much of its grandiose power. For if one reads August: Osage County more as a literal tale of a hostile, dysfunctional family struggling through a terrible reunion than as a purposely theatrical work and a thematically loaded tale of demonic American inheritance then it may just come across as silly. Letts’s thunderous plotting guarantees that Wells’s film will be at least intermittently compelling, and the actors undoubtedly relish the juicy roles handed to them, yet, predictably, another magisterial work of theater has been reduced to a showcase for histrionics.

Letts’s three-act play was undoubtedly similarly predicated upon the pleasure of watching actors tear into dialogue and each other, yet more as a way of summoning up the ghosts of stage works past. Its narrative skeleton—three sisters returning home to deal with a family crisis and a monstrous parent—is a variation on a tried-and-true template invoking everything from Shakespeare (King Lear) to Chekhov (The Three Sisters) to Beth Henley (Crimes of the Heart) and as such seems a meta-theatrical choice. Nevertheless, it offers its own, specific thrills, in Letts’s fiery banter, in the pleasurable way it sets a series of narrative mouse traps in the first act waiting to snap in the second and third, and in the almost absurdly aggressive manner in which its two protagonists—Violet Weston and her daughter Barbara—deal with one another in the aftermath of the death of patriarch Beverly, who appears only to deliver the opening monologue before disappearing into the night. And in its taciturn character of Johnna, the Cheyenne girl hired as housemaid and Violet’s caretaker at the play’s opening, Letts finds a moving symbol for the land itself, bearing witness to the careless wreckage of her white stewards. Simply put, these are all larger-than-life characters in a play rather than just plain folks, and as such, Letts’s portrait of middle American dysfunction takes on a mythical grandeur rather than attempts a potentially condescending stab at authenticity. (Says Barbara: “This is the Plains . . . a state of mind, a spiritual affliction like the Blues.”)

As an ostensible vehicle for the mother-daughter dream team of Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts, Wells’s truncated take on August: Osage County necessarily gives them the lion’s share of close-ups and wisely lets the film hinge on their escalating pas de deux. However, one of this version’s main problems is the amount of visual real estate given to the play’s many other characters, with the exception of Barbara’s sisters, shy and unprepossessing Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) and self-involved firecracker Karen (Juliette Lewis). Each of the play’s many extended family members is crucial to the arc of the narrative, their secrets and lies and blind spots all converging into one operatically messy family story, yet when translated to the language of film, their individual presences greatly damage time and space. Characters once appearing as ensemble players in a clogged stage tableau now, by virtue of close-ups and cutaways, become visual equals, which the narrative can’t here sustain. Furthermore, as with most movie adaptations of plays, Wells “opens up” the action, so that we meet and get to know the various players not just in the Weston house but also in the areas surrounding it in Pawhuska, Oklahoma (a bus stop, a town center, lonely stretches of highway). In desperately evading claustrophobia, Wells ends up fracturing Letts’s tidy, crystal-clear narrative, giving equal visual dominance to a host of characters—Violet’s brother Charlie (Chris Cooper); his wife, Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale); Barbara’s husband, Bill (Ewan McGregor) and daughter, Jean (Abigail Breslin); Karen’s doltish latest boyfriend, Steve (Dermot Mulroney); and black-sheep cousin Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch)—who were better tucked into various corners of the stage before being swiftly dispatched.

Thankfully, the film has that indefatigable time-and-space-sucker Meryl Streep at its center. Streep is often criticized for her unflagging ability to draw all attention away from everyone else onscreen, intentionally or not, yet a visually and narratively scattered film like August: Osage County would die without a strong gravitational pull. Expectedly, Streep fully inhabits Violet, giving the pill-popping, bile-spewing matriarch a host of mannerisms that feel more like long-gestating ejaculations rather than actorly tics. Violet is a resentful, damaging person, wreaking havoc on her loved ones, putting them down with insults that fly out as casually as burps, and Streep doesn’t attempt to make her lovable. Her bitterness feels so entrenched that even Letts’s meanest diatribe, in which Violet angrily and self-loathingly goes on about how “women get ugly with age,” seems like it’s convincingly bubbling up from some rotting chasm. As Barbara, Julia Roberts is hardly a match for this titanic force, but the weary, measured death stares she gives her (look at those pulsating forehead veins!) are convincingly the products of years of demoralization. Roberts is generally excellent at embodying righteous indignation: one of the consistent surprises over the years of this once-upon-a-time America’s Sweetheart is the deeply felt anger summoned in films as disparate as My Best Friend’s Wedding, Erin Brockovich, and Duplicity. Here, she wears her contempt—for her mother, for her cheating husband, for the riotous idiocy of family itself—like an impenetrable mask; her famously wide mouth, nearly petrified into a scowl, communicates more than some of the arch lines Letts gives Barbara as intended showstoppers (“Eat your fish, bitch!”).

On stage, such dysfunction and misery can be unapologetically positioned as fun, captivating spectacle, like the Friday night fights—the thrill of live theater, the main event. We in the audience applauded at the triumphant drag-down, knock-out tussle that concluded the second act. Translated to the screen, close and real, such ugliness is just ugliness. Without the dynamism of the staging, Letts’s play comes across as merely depressing, even taking into account the excitement with which Streep draws out her syllables. It’s a film in which family is malignant and the only pure loving couple is, ironically, an incestuous one. Wells and producer Harvey Weinstein’s controversial decision to put a slightly happy, cathartic spin at the end of the film is therefore a case of too little too late. Letts closed the play with a very alone Violet, abandoned by her family members one by one, barely illuminated while being cradled in Johnna’s arms in that terrifying attic space. The film adds a banal coda to the play’s conclusion, showing a liberated Julia Roberts forcing back a teary smile as she motors down the wide-open highway to who knows where. It’s a desperate measure for a film already doomed to despair.