Some of us don’t get to attend award-winning Broadway plays as often as we’d like (read: never), and that makes me very glad indeed when a well-made adaptation of one is created for the more accessible big screen. Such a case is August: Osage County, the newly released film based on the Tracy Letts play of the same name and directed by John Wells, best know as a producer and writer and for such efforts as The West Wing and The Company Men.
I did not know what to expect of this film, having heard little about it and not knowing much about Wells or about Letts’ play. Maybe due to that, this glimpse at a dysfunctional yet self-sufficient family in Oklahoma was a riveting surprise. The ensemble cast is nothing short of amazing, and Wells does what I admire any good director doing: He lets the consummate pros run with the material. It results in an emotional, gritty, sometimes funny, always pointed drama that verges on the raw angst of a Greek tragedy, with moments of wondrous irony.
Meryl Streep, always impeccable, is superb as Violet, the newly widowed matriarch of the Weston clan, having just lost her husband, Beverly (Sam Shepard), to apparent suicide. In come her sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale) and her husband Charlie (Chris Cooper), her three daughters (Julia Roberts, Julianne Nicholson, and Juliette Lewis), one husband and one fiancee (Ewen McGregor, Dermot Mulroney), one granddaughter (Abigail Breslin), and Mattie’s Fae’s son (Benedict Cumberbatch). Also close by is the recent hire Beverly made, the live-in cook and caretaker Johnna (Misty Upham). Suddenly all thrown together after time apart, the family members experience some typical awkwardness and sporadic hysterics. But there are other skeletons in the closet here, and they soon come out to wreak marvelous havoc.
Oklahoma itself is an ever-present character in this story. It comes across as a strong atmosphere, and is expressed in sentiments like the short speech Barbara (Julia Roberts) gives: “The Midwest, ha. This is the Plains … a spiritual affliction, like the blues.”