Sometimes, in a long-running play, the actors have been doing it so often that they know exactly what will get a gasp from the audience, and that’s what they go for—which is never the same thing as knowing exactly what the play needs, and going for that, gasps or not. For example: I saw Bernadette Peters early on in her run of Little Night Music, when she was serving the play’s needs over her own, and I also saw her towards the end of her run, when she was mugging so shamelessly at the top of Act Two, blustering and simpering and looking flustered, that she made the lyrics “If she’d only looked flustered or admitted the worst/If she only had blustered or simpered or cursed” completely meaningless. It was fun to watch, but it wasn’t the play.
And that’s what a lot of August: Osage County is: it's fun to watch, but it's not the play; it's a decent filmed version of parts of the play where a bunch of actors go for the audience reaction over character interaction. It also feels like an ensemble piece where the leads are being played by a new set of actors. The minor characters can hold their own with each other, because they’ve been around since the beginning of the run, but the new ones in the lead parts are not acting in the same universe, they’re either not up to speed yet or speeding so fast somebody has to slow them down. In this film, that would be Julia Roberts, pretty much all the men except Sam Shepard and Chris Cooper, and, alas, Meryl Streep.
You can make a case that it’s all the wig’s fault, I guess, because when Streep isn't wearing it, she hits all the notes between touching and vulnerable and lost and self-reflective. But the moment she puts it on, she goes straight to ten and never wavers—she transforms into a monster who is (yes, the subtext is that obvious) the living embodiment of mouth cancer. It’s the kind of performance that makes me want to bet you a thousand bucks that her wig was made from strands of Mommie Dearest hair, because Streep with the wig on is as mesmerizing, in exactly the same bad way, as Dunaway was.
You can also make a case that it’s Tracy Letts’ fault, or director John Wells’ fault, or a combination of both. Cutting an hour out of the original play doesn’t do the remainder any favors—it’s like watching an opera with nothing but arias. And the way the play is opened up cripples the tension between the characters. This is a piece that needs a sense of claustrophobia, not weepy violin music underneath the emotional high points so we’ll know that we’re supposed to be feeling an emotion. But given the people behind this movie, that kind of music is not surprising. To paraphrase Henry Higgins, the Weinsteins don’t care what they produce actually, as long as it pronounces the words “Oscar bait” properly.
As for the other actors, Juliette Lewis phones in the Juliette Lewis part, Dermot Mulroney (Julia Roberts’ love interest from My Best Friend’s Wedding) is an obvious sleaze, and Ewan McGregor and Benedict Cumberbatch don’t have a clue what the stakes are. If you want to hire a Brit to play Roberts’ husband, then go with Jonny Lee Miller—the prickliness he brings to Sherlock is perfect for this part. And why Paul Dano isn’t playing Little Charles is beyond me. As for Sam Shepard, who’s penned one or two family eviscerations himself, he totally gets it. He sets the perfect opening tone; but then he’s gone, and only Chris Cooper, Margo Martindale, and Julianne Nicholson remain in tune. But they’re like the lute in PDQ Bach’s Sinfonia Concertante—you can’t hear them, you can only think about them while you’re listening to Streep and Roberts play the bagpipes.
And Roberts? Well, she glares, and glares, and then she looks off somewhere and clenches her teeth before she turns back and glares some more, with this obvious rage that doesn’t appear to be coming from anywhere except a stage direction. Streep’s speech about her mother is there to tell us that bad behavior gets passed down from generation to generation, but there’s no weight to this burden among the women in this family. It’s picked up and displayed and then it’s dropped, when it should be carried, when the weight of carrying it should be evident in every move you make, when the need to get out from under it should be behind every silence, every glare, every clenched jaw.
So yes, you can watch this movie and gasp and laugh in all the right places, like the audience did when I saw it. And like I did too. Because the delivery system still works; it's just all icing and no cake.
Or you can ask yourself questions like “This won the Pulitzer Prize? Really?” and “Why is Meryl fucking Streep running through a field of hay bales?” and “Whoa, wait a minute—if it’s 108 degrees out, then why is Julia fucking Roberts sleeping in sweatpants and a long-sleeved shirt, and why in the name of heat prostration is she throwing on a sweater when she wakes up?”
Or, if you really want to watch a wrenching movie about mothers and daughters, you can rent Autumn Sonata.