Over and over, the negative reviews of "August: Osage County" have pulled variations on a sad theme, with various New York- and LA-based critics wrestling with the film without having seen, or read, the Tracy Letts play that came before it. Paraphrased, the theme goes like this: "Well, at least now I don't have to see the play. The movie doesn't work for me. Why would I ever take time to see the original?"
And this is why weak, misdirected film versions of worthy stage projects cause more harm than the average so-so film.
There are things to enjoy in "August: Osage County," mainly around the edges. But there's a serious case of miscasting at the center. I'm not talking about Meryl Streep as Violet, the (literally) cancerous, vicious, entertainingly awful Oklahoma family matriarch, whose apparent and sudden widowhood brings her three daughters — played by Julia Roberts, Julianne Nicholson and Juliette Lewis — back into the uneasy fold, jockeying for attention, protecting their hides from another round of verbal abuse.
I'm not talking about Roberts, either, though in the shrieking smack downs between her character and Streep's, all Streep has to do to maintain domination of a scene is look at her. Sideways. Once. With her eyes closed Streep could stare down a scene partner and make her blink.
The miscasting, rather, is all about director John Wells, a competent but style-free veteran of TV's "ER" and "Shameless" and the feature film "The Company Men."
Onstage, in the rip-roaring but meticulously controlled Steppenwolf Theatre Company premiere staged by Anna D. Shapiro, "August: Osage County" reminded audiences of the satisfaction to be found in a sprawling, three-act family drama loaded with secrets and vitriol. And really the drama was more of a comedy: Letts' withering wit spread the pain around in freely democratic fashion.
Coming off his plays "Killer Joe," "Bug" and "Man From Nebraska," Letts seized his chance to write a big, juicy showcase for his Steppenwolf colleagues. The result was a little like Sam Shepard's "Buried Child" but larger, something like Chekhov but meaner, something like Lillian Hellman's "The Little Foxes" but with worse manners, and something like Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" (for which Letts recently won a leading-actor Tony Award) in its merciless dissection of marriage wars waged with no regard for collateral damage.
It worked. "August: Osage County" felt old-fashioned in the right way and newfangled in the right way, and it didn't play like a series of derivations yanked out of American standards. It was its own thing, and it traveled well, especially in Shapiro's staging. And then Hollywood came calling.
Letts' screen adaptation of "August: Osage County" shaves about 45 minutes of material. The main change is the foregrounding of the Roberts character, whose marriage to her husband (a bland Ewan McGregor) is over, and whose teenage daughter (Abigail Breslin) spells jailbait for the latest sleazoid boyfriend (Dermot Mulroney) of Aunt Karen's (Lewis).
The script does a pretty shrewd job of retaining the peaks and valleys of the play within an inevitably overstuffed two-hour time frame and a mess of characters to accommodate.
But the movie never really gets going. Wells treats every conversation, each new encounter, as a separate, dutifully filmed scene unto itself, and after a while you start thinking impossible thoughts about directors long gone. What might've Robert Altman and his roving, fluid camera done with this material? In a nod to Chekhov, Letts' comic melodrama derives its tension from packing a lot of unhappy people inside an isolated home and then peeling back the small talk to uncover what lies beneath. That tension, and more crucially, the humor make themselves known only sporadically in the film version. Between Wells' earnest, stilted technique and a terrible, naggingly optimistic musical score by Gustavo Santaolalla, "August: Osage County" never really had a chance at success — only at occasional diversions within a starry yet ill-starred project.
The actors do what they can. Margo Martindale (as Violet's blowzy sister) and Chris Cooper (the sister's husband) are very fine, and their interplay seems natural, easy and smartly calibrated to withhold real feelings behind false ones. Sam Shepard is just right in the key opening sequence as the alcoholic writer married to Streep's toxic character. Nicholson is affecting as the calmest of the three sisters.
See the play sometime. It cooks; the movie's more of a microwave reheat.
"August: Osage County" - 2 stars
MPAA rating: R (for language, including sexual references, and for drug material)
Running time: 1:59