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'August: Osage County': the film improves the play

'August: Osage County': the film improves the play
Written by Martha K. Baker
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About this Media...

  • Director: John Wells
  • Dates: Opens Dec. 25, 2013

The best news about the film adaptation of Tracy Letts' Pulitzer-Prize-winning drama, "August: Osage County," occurs very early. The opening monologue has been trimmed to a mere sliver. Indeed, 40 minutes have been sliced out of the play; the cuts are hardly detectable -- and that's good.

Letts, who wrote the play also wrote the screenplay, so he must have killed quite a few of his darlings. Still, "August: Osage County" is a play written by an actor for actors, which means it puddles around all the actors who've been given monologues, memorable for auditions. Ostensibly, the plot is about the Weston family. The father, Beverly Weston, goes walk-about very early. He introduces his wife Violet as a woman who takes pills, comparable to his drinking. "It's a little bargain we struck," he admits placidly. These are not nice people. They are secretive, manipulative power players.

Violet has been keeping one daughter as her handmaiden through her treatments for, as Beverly says, "a touch of cancer." Another daughter escaped Osage County but drives home with her family when Beverly goes missing. Violet's sister is one of several family members spoiling for a fight. These are people who admit, "We can't tell the future or we'd never get out of bed." Add to the family drama the fact that it's hot as the hinges on the doors of Hades -- the temperature sign at the bank reads 108 degrees. Welcome to hell.

Much of the film is still set in the farmhouse of the play with the father's books lining his study and the mother's closets still filled with skeletons and her sister's ways informed by secrets she keeps, but not very well. Much of the action still takes place around the dining room table, but the film opens up the setting well, especially when an in-law walks out the door. Director John Wells, whose credits are mostly for good television like "The West Wing," handles the feudin' well.

  • Margo Martindale plays Mattie Fay, the sister, effectively. Also excellent with a Midwestern accent is Benedict Cumberbatch, who seems to be in everything this year. Meryl Streep plays the matriarch, who is so good at times as what she calls "the truth teller," but at other times seems to be doing a solo amid this large cast. Sam Shepherd and Chris Cooper, along with Dermot Mulroney, play the Weston men, and Cooper is especially good when he delivers an ultimatum. Julia Roberts is very good as Barbara, and Juliette Lewis plays another Weston daughter well. Misty Upham, who was in "Frozen River," is slyly fine as the interloper. But "August: Osage County" is still a screaming fete, approachable by invitation. Regrets only. 

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