Never before have the magnolias been so steel or the green tomatoes so fried…

After the disappearance of the family Patriarch, sisters Barbara (Julia Roberts), Karen (Juliette Lewis), and Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) return home for a much dreaded family reunion.  Having purposely avoided their cancer-stricken, pill addicted mother, Violet (Meryl Streep) for years, the Weston sisters, along with the rest of the family, must sit down for a tragedy-inspired dinner where secrets will be revealed, plates will be broken, and functionality will certainly be dissed.

Originally a Pulitzer Prize winning play by Tracy Letts (who also adapted here), August: Osage County seems as if it would make a much smoother stage-to-screen transition than his previous, much more impenetrable adaptations of Bug and Killer Joe.  Being familiar with the stage play, the material is certainly strong enough and holds up well, but a little something seems to have been lost in the translation.

August: Osage County
Directed by
John Wells
Meryl Streep, Dermot Mulroney, Julia Roberts
Release Date
10 January 2014
Jason’s Grade: B-

Director John Wells (Company Men) does exactly what would be expected in a film with a cast as impressive as this; he stays out of their way and allows the camera to capture what it is they do best.  To an extent, this works in the film’s favor – many of the performers here are more than qualified to teach their own Master Class in acting, so this seems to be the safest approach.  A good, distinctive directorial voice, however, would have gone a long way in making a compelling argument for a film adaptation to be deemed necessary.  As it stands, the film feels like a collection of scenes built around the embodiment of its own themes of human failings, familial complexity in the midst of communication breakdowns, and even cultural tensions.

With a few minor exceptions, the film takes place largely in one location, giving the film almost a sense of claustrophobia.  A lot of vitriol is slung here and the closed off location provides nowhere to hide for the characters or the audience.  Be prepared, as more skeletons melodramatically leap out of closets, to be almost overwhelmed by the caustic nature.  The lack of a clear narrative arc, as better-provided in the stage play, takes away a much needed focus point for the audience to look forward to.  You may as well have your own seat at the table.

The biggest draw here will certainly be the performances, and for the most part, they do not disappoint.  Most of the men take a back seat to the women, but Sam Shepard as the family patriarch delivers a dynamite monologue at the beginning of the film that makes him sorely missed when he bows out early.  Margo Martindale and Chris Cooper are equally fantastic as Violet’s sister and brother-in-law (do I need to say respectively?).  The character of Jean, Barbara’s 14-year-old daughter seems a bit underwritten and is used almost exclusively as a plot device, but Abigail Breslin does her best to elevate it.

As the youngest Weston sisters, Juliette Lewis and Julianne Nicholson are quite good, but will struggle to receive the recognition they deserve when paired with the powerhouse leads.  Julia Roberts gives her best performance in years as Barbara, is more than up to the need to maintain the audience’s sympathy while coming to the realization that she is becoming more and more like her mother, despite her best efforts not to.  Meryl Streep, is, of course, the centerpiece here and she injects Violet with a cynical edge.  At times, she crosses the line into full-on camp (one late scene, in particular, feels as if it should have provided a much more emotional wallop, but plays a bit more like a deleted Faye Dunaway scene from Mommie Dearest), but it makes the film stronger for it.  There is a very limited amount of scenery to be found in this one-set movie, but she’ll be damned if she allows one inch of it to go unchewed.


Worth the ticket price for the performances alone, August: Osage County is a respectable, but unremarkable adaptation of one of the great modern plays.  It would have been much aided by the narrative focus, act breaks of the stage version, and all subtlety has been tossed out (the woman whose words prove to be her strongest weapon develops cancer of the mouth), but it’s still more than worthy of your time just to see Streep and Roberts in a verbal (and even a bit physical) brawl while surrounded by a group of actors at the top of their game.

Review by Jason Howard, Film Critic