I’ll start our discussion of August: Osage County with Tracy Letts’s play, which I saw in New York in 2008. Estelle Parsons (as the drug-addict mother Violet) was sadistically funny, and Amy Morton (as her bitter daughter Barbara) was indomitable. I know Hollywood doesn’t believe me, but dialogue-heavy plays are best on screen when you don’t change much. Take Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? as a good translation. So I’m pleased Letts adapted his own work for the August movie.
He cuts down the lesser characters, though, and the movie feels overstuffed. Benedict Cumberbatch’s Little Charlie becomes crucial to the ending, but Cumberbatch only gets one good scene. He feels out of place. Julianne Nicholson’s Ivy comes off best. She’s worn down, resigned to caring for her mom; but she’s also one of the few optimists, determined to leave home and start over. I also enjoyed Margo Martindale and Chris Cooper, both pros at fleshing out character parts.
Not having seen August: Osage County on stage, I still appreciated it for what it was—a dysfunctional dramedy on film. The script still kept the heart of Letts’s original play for me, but I do agree with you that it felt a bit overstuffed. Several of the character subplots, including Johnna (played with quiet grace by Misty Upham), Steve (with out-of-the-blue creepiness from Dermot Mulroney), and Jean (a too-old Abigail Breslin), felt rushed, like unequal add-ons to the Streep-Roberts slugfest. I suspect that if I’d seen it on stage, the play would have felt much darker than it was. I’m constantly reminded of that insufferable song in the trailer (“Stubborn Love“—”When we were young…”) that tried to make August look like another quirky Alexander Payne movie, when it was anything but.
What did you think of the big two? For me, Julia Roberts gave the performance I expected. She’s always had that toughness about her, which she sinks into here. She nails Barbara’s resentment and exhaustion. But I think Letts intends us to see Barbara turning into her mother, and Roberts doesn’t really go there. She’s not self-loathing. Then there’s Meryl Streep. Listen, I would have welcomed Sissy Spacek or Shirley Maclaine, someone who feels more authentically Midwestern. But Streep has a way with zingers. She sets the tone: this isn’t realism, this is a comedy of (no) manners.
I agree with you that Roberts did a fine job here. They kept her dressed schlubby, but she still had that Julia Roberts-ness about her that has been a hindrance at times to her performances. It works in vehicles like Pretty Woman and Erin Brockovich, but I feel that the filmmakers could have done more to deglamour her. Streep, on the other hand, felt pleasantly surprising to me. All of the critics said it was such an over-the-top performance, but part of that was the character’s wardrobe/makeup. She looks so realistic at the beginning and end, but with that big black Bette Davis fright wig on, it’s slightly hard to take her seriously. The alternative ending didn’t bother me at all, but it did feel like they were trying to tack on a Hollywood “it’ll be all right” ending for audiences. Overall, I think the movie had some flaws, but I found it entertaining and worthy to be included in this year’s Oscar season.
For Your Consideration: Julianne Nicholson.