“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
– Leo Tolstoy – Anna Karenina
I have mentioned before that I am a big fan of playwright Tracy Letts. I’ve read three of his plays; Bug; Killer Joe; and August: Osage County. I am fortunate to have seen all three on stage and, now, have seen all three adapted for film.
That August: Osage County is a great play is truly beyond dispute. The play won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2008. The Broadway production won the Tony Award for Best Play the same year. When I heard there would be a film I was happy to see that Letts would be writing the screenplay, as he had done for the two earlier adaptations. Adapting well-known material can be challenging and thankless but having the playwright adapt his own work is often the ‘best case scenario’. I am sad to say I was a little disappointed; but only a little.
The members of the Weston family are brought together in the family’s rural Oklahoma home by a tragedy; the disappearance of the family’s patriarch. The Westons are an unhappy family and have been so for generations. They are also a family with secrets. How the various members of the extended Weston family come to terms with their unique unhappiness as their secrets are revealed is the substance of this very dark comedy/drama.
The cast is truly a ‘dream team’. Led by Meryl Streep as Violet, the family’s matriarch, the cast is virtually a “Who’s Who” of contemporary actors including Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Benedict Cumberbatch, Juliette Lewis, Margo Martindale, Dermot Mulroney, Julianne Nicholson and Sam Shepard. I’ve come to expect nothing short of perfection from Streep and she does not disappoint. Julia Roberts, Julianne Nicholson and Juliette Lewis are similarly strong as Violet’s daughters. Margo Martindale, Chris Cooper and Ewan McGregor deserve special recognition but there is truly no weak link.
I’ve read criticism of the look for the movie. I thought it was terrific. Taking its cue from the stage set, the action takes place inside the Weston’s rural home. The dark, over-crowded, setting is as oppressive as the August heat. And the close quarters stand in stark contrast to the vast expanse of the surrounding plains. I found an almost poetic symmetry in the notion that the openness of the land and the claustrophobic closeness inside the house are, each in their own way, similarly empty.
So what’s not to like? After seeing the movie, I came home and re-read the play to figure out what was lacking for me. The screenplay stays remarkably true to the play. There is some compression of time at the end of the movie. A few character interactions were truncated or eliminated. I realized what I am missing is some of the motivation. The play is subtle in the way it reveals character so seemingly small cuts make a difference.
In the play, there is a harshness to Barbara; the character played by Julia Roberts, that seems softened in the film. It is a small thing but the consequences are significant. In the play, it is easier to see a more ‘self-inflicted’ hue to Barbara’s troubles. In the film, there is more of a whiff of the victim about her. Unfortunately, that ripples through the structure. If Barbara is a softer character then the similarity to her mother; Violet, is less ‘spot-on’. This, in turn, mutes the similarities revealed between Violet and her own mother. The transgenerational pathology at the heart of this family seems less clear. This is further weakened by the hint of optimism at the end of the film. The likelihood of redemption for Barbara at the end of the movie is greater than that shown on the stage.
In the end, I think the movie suffers more by comparison to the play than for any deficiency of its own. Had I never read the play nor seen it on stage, I would have loved this movie. As it was, I only liked it. But I liked it very much.