I'm a firm believer that there's nothing Meryl Streep can't do. The living legend is such a consummate chameleon that the only thing her movie roles often have in common is that they are delicious to watch.
But sometimes a movie can let even a star of Streep's caliber down. Sadly, that is exactly what happens in August: Osage County, a tone-deaf adaptation of a dark comedy play known for its biting dialogue and next-level dysfunctional family.
Written by Tracy Letts (of Killer Joe fame), August: Osage County centers on a catastrophic string of days for the Weston family of Oklahoma. Pill-popping matriarch Violet (Streep) alerts her three daughters that their father has gone missing. The far-flung family is drawn to their childhood home like moths to the flame, and before long, age-old resentments, shocking secrets, and disturbing developments are revealed.
TV-producer-turned-movie-director John Wells helms this fiery ensemble piece, which is filled to the brim with noteworthy performers. Julia Roberts, Julianne Nicholson and Juliette Lewis support Streep as Violet's very different daughters. Ewan McGregor and Dermot Mulroney are disappointing additions to the family circle. Sam Shepard, Benedict Cumberbatch and Margo Martindale are extended family members. And Abigail Breslin is the lone and lonely grandchild. It's a dream cast in many respects, full of actors who have been celebrated for their lack of vanity and bravery in pursuing a performance with gusto and grace.
Unfortunately, with a directing hand as wobbly as Wells', August: Osage County is all over the place.
The screenplay, which was adapted by the source material's playwright, gives a solid base. It provides a compelling story about a family whose bonds have become suffocating and deeply gnarled by jealousies. The dialogue is razor sharp and twistedly funny. It's easy to imagine Broadway audiences snickering at Violet's many cruel one-liners. And the skeletons that come tumbling out of the Weston's closets keep things interesting as the plot rumbles along.
The cast, for their part, is as solid as you'd expect. Streep is engrossing as the venom-spewing grandmother who can turn from sweet to sneering in the blink of an eye. Roberts digs into Barbara, the oldest and "favorite" child who is nonetheless endlessly reminded of her faults and failures. Roberts shares the load of the plot and emotional flow of the film. (Her nominations relegation to "supporting actress" is a laughable ploy of award season politics.) Cooper and Martindale are heartbreaking as a long-married couple that feuds endlessly over their sweet screw-up son, Little Charles (Cumberbatch, as we've never seen him before, which is to say dopey). Really there's no one in the cast who doesn't deserve praise for their performance. So why doesn't August: Osage County come together? I put that squarely on Wells, who couldn't take all these extraordinary elements and forge them into something suitably stupendous.
As I see it, there are two ways this film could have gone in its depiction of the Weston family. Wells could have chosen a gritty/naturalistic tone that would make these people look as real as possible, underlying how even those strangers who may seem mundane at first glance have rich inner lives of which we know nothing.
Or, he could have embraced the theatrical dialogue -- full of monologues and melancholy revelations -- and gone the way of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, with its big-and-bold performance style that is grotesque and magnificent. Instead, Wells seems to attempt to split the difference, making for a movie that is tonally a mess. The dramatic scenes are stern and cutting, while the comedy scenes veer into camp. It's a jarring execution that makes it nearly impossible to get on board with this over-the-top story. Ultimately, August: Osage County never gets hot enough to really sizzle.