Daily | Toronto 2013 | John Wells’s AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY

August: Osage Country

‘August: Osage Country’

“A memorably bitter highlight in August: Osage Country, Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play, was the coruscating post-funeral dinner scene,” begins the Telegraph‘s Tim Robey. “This takes up maybe 25 minutes of screen time in the film, but you’ll be too busy wincing, guffawing and hiding behind your fingers to count them. The tone of this disastrous wake is set, as often, by Violet Weston (Meryl Streep), the malevolent, drug-addicted matriarch of her sizeable Oklahoma family, whose resentments against all three of her middle-aged daughters, as well as various other near and dear, get a thorough and unhinged airing. Violet’s husband, Bev (Sam Shepard), has just killed himself, which is the only reason this wildly dysfunctional clan are even assembled around her table: it’s clear from every conversation between Barb (Julia Roberts), Karen (Juliette Lewis) and Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) that the three sisters are rarely in touch and don’t, respectfully, want anything much to do with each other.”

So, four out of five stars from Tim Robey—but only two out of five from the Guardian‘s Catherine Shoard, who notes that August won Letts “a Pulitzer prize to stick with the Tony, plus prodigious other theatrical bling. The pedigree of this film version—backed by not just the Weinsteins but super-producers George Clooney and Grant Heslov—suggested he’d soon be adding some Oscars to the shelf. But there’s a big gap between pitch and victory, and John Wells’s film comes a cropper on the prairie.”

“There are no surprises,” grants Variety‘s Scott Foundas, “just lots of good, old-fashioned scenery chewing… Arriving onscreen shorn of some girth (the stage version ran more than three hours, with two intermissions) but keeping most of its scalding intensity, this two-ton prestige pic won’t win the hearts of highbrow critics or those averse to door-slamming, plate-smashing, top-of-the-lungs histrionics, but as a faithful filmed record of Letts’s play, one could have scarcely hoped for better.”

EW‘s Owen Gleiberman: “The fights and insults and sadistic parent-child mind games, the disease and addiction, the decades’ worth of gnarled domestic resentments, the powerhouse acting that sometimes shades into overacting (though in this case I’ll be damned if you could the draw the line)… the movie is red meat for anyone who thrives on confrontation and a certain brand of punchy, in-your-face emotional shock value. Yet the pull of what was happening on screen came, for me, with a major qualification: I went with it, I often enjoyed it, but I didn’t entirely buy it.” On stage, “August: Osage County may have had a more perfect home for its orgy of sprawling but hermetic dysfunction. On screen, it’s closer to Steel Magnolias staged with Venus flytraps. The dark revelations pile up in this movie with a little too much clockwork relentlessness.”

“Amidst the movie’s histrionics and shouting matches, there is also a deep concern about the ways in which families create imperfect people who go out into the world continuously blaming their parents for their difficulties in adulthood,” writes Tim Grierson for Screen Daily. “This dynamic is felt most strongly between Violet and Barbara, but it can also be observed in other characters, including Violet’s boisterous sister Mattie Fae Aiken (Margo Martindale), whose good-natured ribbing can turn surprisingly dark when it comes to her disappointment of a son Charles (a timid, beaten-down Benedict Cumberbatch, nicely playing against type).”

“While it’s very much performance-driven, the movie makes some gains in translating the desolate landscape of Oklahoma from imagination to reality,” notes David Rooney in the Hollywood Reporter. “Adriano Goldman’s hazily sun-bleached widescreen images of the long roads and lonely plains surrounding the old Weston family home convey an inescapable isolation these people have taken with them even after they’ve moved away.”

“With so many personalities in play, August: Osage County could poke at its secrets and simmering tensions indefinitely, and at times it feels like it does,” writes Eric Kohn at Indiewire, where he gives the film a B. The Playlist‘s Kevin Jagernauth suggests it plays “almost like a supercut of Important Acting In Big Scenes” and gives it a C-. And 4.8/10 from Laremy Legel at, who finds it “ends up heading to Melodramaville, population: bad movies.”

At Vanity Fair, Julie Miller passes along a story Benedict Cumberbatch told in Toronto, where August is a Gala Presentation, about Meryl Streep.

Updates, 9/11: “While the decision to ‘open up’ the play with shots of dusty roads and trips to town was inevitable, it’s a distraction,” writes Ben Kenigsberg at the AV Club. “Confinement—a sense that there’s no escape for this family—is essential to August’s effect. TV veteran John Wells (whose last theatrical feature was The Company Men) directs with a heavy hand, flattening much of the humor and spikiness in Letts’s construction. He also lays on a sappy, completely inappropriate Gustavo Santaolalla score that suggests this is a story of uplift, rather than a bleak night of characters sloughing their way toward loneliness and death.”

Julia Roberts, “at 45, has sprung from movie jail with Joker-like gusto and turned in arguably the finest screen performance of her career,” declares Marlow Stern at the Daily Beast. “At the height of her career Roberts was known as the cheery underdog, everybody’s all-American gal. She’s the tragic heroine, the hooker with a heart of gold, the abused wife, the other woman, the shaky movie star. But Roberts has always been at her acting best when she gets combative, flipping two birds to our perception of her. Much as in Brockovich or Closer, her turn in August: Osage County is a brilliant riff on her squeaky-clean image and on-screen victim persona.”

August: Osage County

Julia Roberts and Meryl Street in ‘August: Osage County’

“It’s pure lunacy to argue that Letts’s three-hour play has retained any of its subtle power, or is a prestige Oscar candidate,” writes Joshua Rothkopf for Time Out New York. “Nor is anyone going to convince me that the material been properly adapted to the screen simply by shooting it on farm country. Even if you put your own clan’s knockdown brawls in mind, this film doesn’t occur anywhere close to reality.”

Updates, 9/12: Meryl Streep “is not Vi; she is Meryl Streep doing another of her fabulous impressions,” argues Time‘s Richard Corliss. “Her Julia Child in Julie & Julia and her Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady were acute parodies that found some emotional grounding in those famous personalities. If PBS had its own refined version of Saturday Night Live, Streep could be a permanent guest host. But when she turns her considerable talents to fictional roles, like the mother in Mamma Mia! or the nun in Doubt, or here with Vi, she tends to go way too big, diverting the audience’s focus from the character to the performer…. So maybe the movie adaptation is a suitable showcase for Streep’s meticulous overplaying. What’s telling, though, is that most of the other actors — Julia Roberts, Julianne Nicholson, Chris Cooper, Margo Martindale, Benedict Cumberbatch, Juliette Lewis — manage to nail their roles, to draw all the wit and pain out of their characters, without showboating.”

“Who cares if John Wells directs August like a play that occasionally wanders outdoors for a look-see?” asks the Boston Globe‘s Ty Burr. “The movie promises a thespic cage-match, and it delivers, even if the Weinstein company is still dithering over whether to keep an ending that slightly softens the play’s punch.”

For Susan Wloszczyna, writing for, “it sometimes comes off like one of those ‘We Are the World’ all-star songs where everyone involved gets a for-your-consideration solo in order to shine…. Imagine Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? filtered through Terms of Endearment.”

Update, 9/17: “Summer Stock with a score, the film gets to the meat of the play while slightly compromising its darker, murkier undertones,” writes Nick McCarthy at the House Next Door. “Instead of transcending the source material, John Wells, whose only previous feature is The Company Men, toys with packaging the material in a way that maintains the play’s themes while remaining cautious of its vituperative vigor.”

Update, 12/22:August: Osage County is awards bait at its most overt,” writes David Lee Dallas for Slant. :Buried within its vanilla packaging and sub-standard compositions, though, is a slyer, more compelling vision, a bawdy and black-hearted vaudeville act that defies the notion of ‘prestige.’ Unquestionably a bit of a mess, it’s also a dirty, angry, obscene, and uproarious one, and as such difficult to dismiss.”

Updates, 12/25: “The film’s cast isn’t as miraculously in-synch as the original 2007 Steppenwolf production, and the play was shorn of more than an hour, somehow losing momentum in the process,” writes Ben Kenigsberg at the AV Club. “The ending has been altered semi-disastrously, in tone more than in content. Even so, the most memorable, stinging moments from the source material remain. As long as this August stays claustrophobic and ‘stagebound,’ the film retains some of the original’s acid touch.”

Tasha Robinson at the Dissolve: “By taking all the bombastic scenery-chewing as seriously and self-importantly as possible, director John Wells seems to be trying to make August: Osage County as brutally confrontational as Letts’s other two stage-to-screen plays, both filmed by William Friedkin. But while the script continues Letts’s devotion to profound unpleasantness, it lacks the shock value of Bug’s bloody violence or Killer Joe’s graphic sexual assault. It also lacks the intimacy and intensity that give the other two films a breathless conviction.”

New York‘s David Edelstein: “August: Osage County has no subtext to speak of; it’s all bellowed into your face. On Broadway, its Chicago actors knew how to modulate their performances and together build the tension, beat by beat. (Last year, Letts himself gave a master class in modulation as George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) But director John Wells fractures the action, jumping back and forth between stars in close-up yelling at one another in the style of a more profane Steel Magnolias.”

Stephanie Zacharek in the Voice on Meryl Streep: “If she were a Batman villain, she’d be called The Actress. Admittedly, August: Osage County is a comedy, a bleak one, and that’s an arena in which Streep usually thrives: She’s a brilliant comic actress, terrific even in otherwise undistinguished pictures like Julie & Julia, perhaps because those roles most effectively expose some otherwise hidden vulnerability, kicking something loose in her. August: Osage County, however, bitterly funny in some places and numbingly earnest in others, is just too much Streep. But all is not lost. Some of her fellow actors are resourceful enough to reconstruct themselves after being obliterated.”

“The film is a series of mostly one on one dramatic interactions, none of them uninteresting,” writes Jim Tudor at Twitch. “But as ‘cinema,’ it’s an accomplished talk fest, and little more.”

“For a dialogue-heavy film with maybe 10 seconds of actual physical aggression, August: Osage County is a remarkably violent experience,” adds Ashley Fetters in the Atlantic.

Interviews: R. Kurt Osenlund with Tracy Letts for Slant, Simon Abrams with Chris Cooper for Esquire, and Kristopher Tapley with Julia Roberts for In Contention.

Update, 12/26: The NYT‘s A.O. Scott suggests that we might think of August as “a thespian cage match. Within a circumscribed space, a bunch of unquestionably talented performers is assembled with no instructions other than to top one another. One twitchy confession must be excelled by another. The same with smoldering, sarcastic speeches, explosions of tears, wistful jags of nostalgia and imperious gazes of disgust. It goes without saying that nobody can beat Ms. Streep at this game. Remember Amy Adams in Julie and Julia? Anne Hathaway in The Devil Wears Prada? Anyone at all in The Iron Lady? Of course not.” Julia Roberts “tries to hold her own by refusing to smile. She also slaps a face and breaks a plate. It’s hardly a fair contest. But everyone joins in. Ewan McGregor, as Barbara’s half-estranged husband, affects a pained smile. Abigail Breslin, as their teenage daughter, Jean, pouts and seethes. Juliette Lewis and Dermot Mulroney, as Barbara’s sister Karen and her sleazy new fiancé, stop in from another, much more entertaining, movie, one full of sex and danger and naughtiness.”

Updates, 12/27: “So why is August: Osage County the movie so lurching, so emotionally unengaging, so peculiarly bad?” wonders Slate‘s Dana Stevens. Perhaps because “too many storylines and characters are stuffed into this two-hour movie, left to fight their way out like kittens sewn into a burlap sack.”

“If the boozy epic confrontations of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof are your definition of a good time, then this is the place to be,” advises Susan Wloszczyna at “Streep might have less to lose and more to gain by going over the top. But it is Roberts, humbly stripped of all movie-star artifice, who comes away the clear winner.”

Updates, 1/2: “The most interesting thing in the movie,” finds the New Yorker‘s David Denby, “is the way that Barbara haplessly begins to resemble her mother, and Roberts portrays well Barbara’s feelings of rage and self-disgust at finding Violet’s destructiveness alive in her own soul. Margot Martindale, as Mattie Fae, Violet’s vulgar and catty sister, and Chris Cooper, as Mattie Fae’s long-suffering husband, are very fine, and the other actors have effective moments, but the material’s theatrical origins hamper our enjoyment of the performances: the last-act revelations are so overdetermined that they have little shock value.”

“It’s all pure soap opera material, to be sure, but it looks so good gussied up in the tuxedo of its literary pedigree and placed in the mouths and gestures of its talented cast,” finds Christopher Bourne.

Update, 3/3: Notable reviews to catch up with: Marjorie Baumgarten (Austin Chronicle, 3.5/5), Josef Braun, Alison Hallett (Stranger), Robert Horton (Seattle Weekly), Michael Koresky (Reverse Shot), Craig D. Lindsey (Nashville Scene), Wesley Morris (Grantland) and Michael Schulman (New Yorker). And Katey Rich interviews Letts for the Guardian.

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