August: Osage County “Flat, Hot Nothing”

August: Osage County succeeds remarkably well in transporting us to the strange Okie world in which it takes place.  The movie is filled with vistas of the sun-scorched Plains, a setting Barbara Weston (Julia Roberts) contemptuously refers to as “flat, hot, nothing.”  And throughout the viewing, that’s exactly where we find ourselves.  A place that lacks depth and dimension, is fraught with cacophony and argumentation, and ultimately amounts to less than the sum of its parts.  Not that the film isn’t pleasant at times—don’t get me wrong—but as we scratch our heads for answers to questions like what was this movie about, anyway? we can’t seem to place August: Osage County anywhere at all.

The journey begins promisingly enough.  We enter the crowded, dimly lit study of Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard) as he speaks to his newly hired cook Johnna (Misty Upham).  In half-stumbles, half-waltzes his wife, the theatrical, in-your-face Violet (Meryl Streep), suffering from mouth-cancer and the haze that accompanies an addictive pill-pushing that would shame even Dr. House.  The title credits roll and we soon learn that Beverly has mysteriously disappeared.  To cope with this new development in her already delicately placed life, Violet calls upon her entire family for support.

Her three daughters, Barbara (Julia Roberts), Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), and Karen (Juliette Lewis) come to the rescue along with their romantic interests.  For Barbara, her husband Bill Fordham (Ewan McGregor), along with their daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin); for Ivy, the tardy Little Charles Aiken (Benedict Cumberbatch), her “cousin,” accompanied by her Aunt Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale – confirmed no relation to our very own Dayton Martindale) and Uncle Charlie (Chris Cooper); for Karen, her shady fiancée Steve Huberbrecht (Dermot Mulroney).  Each of the characters has such a strong personality that the family reunion soon turns into, in Bill’s words, “a madhouse.” And in this “madhouse,” truths and secrets about members of the family are plucked out like objects from a magician’s hat, one after another until it feels like there couldn’t possibly be anything left. In the ensuing uncomfortable tug and pull between blood relatives that defines the film’s plot, Violet keeps reminding us “in her day, family stuck together.”  So, will the Westons pull through for their matriarch or abandon each other in rash fits of self-interest?

Even though audiences get a definitive answer to that question, I’m still not sure what to make of this film.  Maybe that’s because it’s based on Tracy Letts’ 2007 play of the same name, winner of both the Pulitzer and Tony.  In the play, Letts explores the dysfunctionality of the Weston family vividly; it is filled with over-the-top dialogue and in-your-face symbolism that makes the story come alive onstage.  But in pruning the three-and-a-half hour play script to fit the constrained template of a two-hour mainstream film, August: Osage County becomes decidedly stuck between the flamboyance of the theatre and the realism of film.

For instance, the film takes itself too seriously to allow comedy to flourish.  I laughed during this movie, but when I watched scenes from the play, I realized there was much more that was supposed to be funny.  Still, there are a lot of great one-liners.august2

Oh, oh… I got a big bite of fear, and it never tasted so good! 
Let’s all say horseshit!
Look at your boobs!  Last time I saw you, you looked like a little boy.

Hmm, they’re much funnier in context.  Take my word for it.  Another thing this film has going for it is a star cast that delivers some great acting (this despite the fact that Sherlock—I mean the very talented Benedict Cumberbatch— was grossly miscast as the timid Little Charles).  There were moments in the film that almost made me believe that Streep deserves the Oscar for Best Actress more than Cate Blanchett— key word: almost.  In fact, the two performances betray an element of commonality in that they both are able to capture the larger-than-life vacillations between normality and eccentricity, compassion and self-centeredness, and health and sickness that define both Jasmine and Violet.  (Note the similarity in even the names).  Specifically, Streep brilliantly coveys the mental “haze” and caustic anger that the cancer-afflicted Violet experiences as she sees her family life crumbling before her.  Julia Roberts is nearly as good in the more grounded character of Barbara, who despite her attempts at compassion toward Violet, ultimately comes to see the world through a realistic prism.  It’s a realism that the audience sorely needs in order to broker a connection with the “madhouse” the Westons are.

No, where this film really withers is its screenplay. Again, something is clearly lost in translation from the stage to the screen.  This may seem surprising since the playwright Letts himself wrote the screenplay for the film.  But once you compare the screenplay Letts submitted to the Weinstein production house to the final screenplay, you realize that there were some glaring omissions made during the production of the film itself.

Take just the opening scene.  It opens with T.S. Eliot’s quote, “Life is very long.”  But I wish the film had kept Beverly’s commentary on T.S. Eliot’s mentally troubled wife Viv, where he indicates that someone faced with the prospects of “plop[ping] [one’s wife] in the nearest asylum” would become a “Olympian Suicidalist,” a foreshadowing of Beverly’s own act of leaving the his mentally unstable wife, Violet.  I wish we could have heard Beverly say, “Welcome to make use of anything, everything, all of this garbage we’ve acquired, our life’s work” to connect to Violet’s disappointment in her children (her life’s work) and her insistence on getting rid of her material possessions once her husband is gone.  I wish it had included the last line of Berryman’s poem “Curse”:

By night within that ancient house,
Immense, black, damned, anonymous.

Then we could see the futility and bereavement Beverly ascribes to his own life, something that is totally lost in the whole film.

When I hear critics say that August: Osage County makes them want to avoid the play at all costs, it makes me sad.  Sad because I think Letts’ original screenplay has a raw, literary beauty to it.  But the production house’s insistence on cutting renders the final product utterly pedestrian.  Still, reading Letts’ screenplay gave me the sense of what this movie was supposed to be about: the desire to mask uncomfortable truths, the necessity of confronting the past, the disconnect induced by the generation gap, and the presence of two different “types” of relationships.

The first of these themes is actually treated with some care by director John Wells.  The most prominent symbol of “masking the truth” is undoubtedly Violet’s wig that is literally a filamented mask that covers her poor health.  Indeed, whenever she’s without it, she descends into a complete mental fugue.  Similarly, when Mattie Fae and Charlie come to the Westons, they find the shades completely drawn and taped over the windows.  “Do you know the purpose?  You can’t tell if it’s night or day,” remarks Charlie, to which Ivy responds, “That is the purpose.”  Here, too, the shades clearly mirror the family’s lack of ability to come to terms with reality and its collective desire to block out the ability of the outside world to peer in.  It is only when Violet decides “time we had some truths told ‘round here” that the family confronts the secrets that have been brushed under the musty, tacky rug, albeit in the unhealthiest and (for us) most hilarious of ways.

However, the film fails to give the same clear treatment to the most uncomfortable of Oklahoma’s truths—the manner in which Native Americans have been treated in the past.  All we get is a banal, one-line sermon from Bill in the car and clearly racist overtones from Violet when addressing her cook Johnna, who is Cherokee.  And the other themes are almost completely drowned out by the collective “loudness” of the characters onscreen.  The family is almost too dysfunctional for us to be able to concretely pinpoint all of its problems discretely.

More importantly, what do we take away from this film?  Should we hide the truth from our loved ones, following the old adage “ignorance is bliss,” thereby failing to confront reality, as the film seems to argue against? Or expose them to the harsh reality that will burst their happy little bubbly lives forever, which the film also clearly argues against?  How can we understand empathy and the ability to reconcile differences if none of the characters evince any ability to do so themselves? I’m not really sure there is anything profound to take away from this film.  At the end of the day, that’s perhaps the worst criticism that could be leveled at any film, especially one that boasts as much potential as August: Osage County does.  Alas, it amounts to “flat, hot nothing.”

Grade: C+