Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Intense adaptation of award-winning play leaves audience feeling battered

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American playwright Tracy Letts said it was excruciating to cut out over a third of his masterpiece play August: Osage County for this prestige film adaptation, which is flush with A-list acting talent.

Any Winnipegger who saw the exhilarating three-hour-and-20-minute original at the RMTC Warehouse in 2012 and compares it with this disappointing big-screen reduction will feel his pain and throw in a little of their own.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning script, even in the hands of a dream cast, is diminished by its downsizing.

In the grand tradition of Tennessee Williams and Eugene O'Neill, Letts introduces another dysfunctional American family called the Westons, whose unhappily married patriarch, the heavy-drinking poet Beverly (Sam Shepard), is soon found drowned in a lake, having committed suicide. It only takes a few minutes with his scary-looking, fire-breathing wife Violet to know why.

She suffers from mouth cancer, a chilling irony, given that her savage tongue has menaced her family forever.

While director John Wells, a TV veteran directing his second feature, attempts to open up the story with visuals of flat, sun-parched farmland around Pawhuska, Okla., it cannot shake off its theatrical roots.

Nearly every scene unfolds in the rambling Weston home, where ravaged mother dearest gleefully takes drugs and potshots at her three adult daughters or anyone who dares darken her door. New family scandals and old Weston skeletons tumble out of the closet to ensure there will be no let-up in the clan's chronic unhappiness.

Each daughter shows up to comfort their newly widowed mother starring in her own drama. Alpha-sibling Barbara (a glammed-down Julia Roberts), returns to the old homestead resentful but distracted by an unfaithful husband about to walk out on their marriage and a mopey, 14-year-old pot-smoking daughter (Abigal Breslin), who is anxious to leave home with him.

Flighty youngest sister Karen (Juliette Lewis) has also returned home from Florida with questionable fiancé Steve (Dermot Mulroney), a three-time-divorced creep. Only introverted middle sister Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) has stayed around to endure mom's incessant bullying, although she has plans to escape with her loser first cousin Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch), son of the domineering Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale) and her long-suffering husband, Charlie (Chris Cooper).

The downbeat drama retains its cathartic humour but two hours of shrill tantrums and plate-smashing hysterics is overpowering. Letts has pared all the breathing room out of his script. It now feels like a crammed series of one-on-one verbal bouts that leaves viewers bruised and battered.

Wells's direction amounts to little more than calls for the actors to clear the ring for the next pair of combatants to throw down. The tight camera work enhances the pressure-cooker intensity.

They all assemble for the Weston cage match -- better known as the family dinner -- at which is served a heaping helping of "truth-telling." Good ol' boy Uncle Charles attempts to say grace but there is none at this table, as ravenous Violet begins her bloody feed, taking savage bites out of any guests who have the misfortune to catch her eye. It's nasty fun to watch, the glee in the audience heightened by the relief of not having to be on the receiving end of Vi's merciless remarks.

The required barrage of histrionics guarantees nonstop "acting," with Meryl Streep leading the scenery-gobbling parade, overpowering everyone else. Roberts gives a potent performance as the sharp-tongued Barbara, who discovers, with disgust, that her mother's destructiveness is alive in her own soul. Cooper is the audience stand-in and delivers every viewer's sentiments to his wife: "I don't understand this meanness."

Martindale, as always, is compellingly watchable. In what is surely a breakout performance, Nicholson (Masters of Sex) conveys pluck beneath Ivy's mild-mannered surface; when her bid for freedom is thwarted, she folds heartbreakingly. Cumberbatch, is the only casting mistake -- he wanders around looking suitably pained, but lost.

The final misstep is tacking on an unnecessary new coda. Instead of the perfectly appropriate and emphatic parting image of the play, the more positive film epilogue seems an ill-advised reach after spending two harrowing hours with the warring Westons.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 10, 2014 D1


Updated on Friday, January 10, 2014 at 7:51 AM CST: adds photo

9:20 AM: adds missing words

11:20 AM: adds video

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