TIFF 2013: August: Osage County (dir. John Wells, 2013)

August: Osage County

USA, 2013 — Dir. John Wells

Snorting, cackling and speaking in scary low tones (with impeccable — natch! — Oklahoma twang to boot), Meryl Streep puts on a show in August: Osage County, John Wells’s film adaptation of Tracy Letts’s play, which premiered at Toronto Film Festival on Monday night. As Vi, the bewigged, pill-popping, cancerous matriarch who’s at the centre of the drama, Streep goes all out, delivering a juicily theatrical turn that’s consistently lively and surprising.

Wells has surrounded the mighty Meryl’s scenery-chewin’ exploits with a bunch of big names also doing their thang: there’s Julia Roberts, Juliette Lewis and Julianne Nicholson as her three daughters, Ewan McGregor as Roberts’s spouse, Margo Martindale and Chris Cooper as her sister and brother-in-law, and Benedict Cumberbatch as their son. Not to forget a brief bonus cameo from Sam Shepard as Vi’s husband, the character whose suicide sets the drama in motion by contriving to bring the extended clan together at the family homestead for a hearty round of ructions and revelations.

Some may complain that this familiar company of actors tips the piece off balance somewhat, sinking the material under the weight of accumulated star power. But I found August: Osage County‘s deluxe casting to be one of the movie’s most pleasurable elements. And the material can use the help, for despite the praise it’s received — as both a Tony and Pulitzer Prize winner, no less — I’m not so sure that Letts’s play is really such a terrific piece of work in the first place.

Acclaimed as a searing, barbed portrayal of family tensions and ties, it mostly suggests Long Day’s Journey Into Night reworked by Sam Shepard (which is part of what makes Shepard’s cameo in the film amusing) with a large dose of sitcom and soap opera added into the mix. It’s the kind of work that has skeletons tumbling from the family closet on cue (risibly so as the drama progresses), that falls back on cozy psychobabble (hey, if Vi is a monster then it’s because her mother was one, too) and that features characters saying things like “Don’t get all Carson McCullers on me!” The centrepiece sequence — retained here without fussy cutting around — is a post-funeral dinner scene in which the family’s arguing tuns into a full-on physical scuffle.

Working from a screenplay by Letts that makes some tweaks and trims to the play and supplies a basic “opening out”, Wells treats the material with unseemly reverence at times, adding stately landscape shots to remind us that we’re not, after all, watching a play. It’s a fairly bland job of direction but the actors cut through it with some wit and inventiveness. Roberts clearly relishes the chance to play an unsympathetic character and bites into the role with fierce panache, while subtler-hued work comes from Nicholson and Cumberbatch as the kissing “cousins”. Seeing this cast interact and spark off each other makes for some camp fun, even if Letts’s material is still to much of a calculated dysfunction-fest to really persuade.

RATING 5 / 10