It may be based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning family drama, but the film adaptation of Tracy Letts’ critically acclaimed play is an accidental camp classic, says Simon Mernagh.
Surely no star-studded, high-end Broadway-to-Hollywood drama should leave you with total post-movie disbelief. Following the shoutfest that is August: Osage County would be forgiven for pondering, ‘This won the Pulitzer and all those Tonys?’
Starring almost every actor known to mankind, August adapts Tracy Letts’ critically acclaimed play for the silver screen. A dysfunctional clan of Oklahoma intellectuals rendez-vous following the disappearance of family patriarch, Beverly (Sam Shepard). Cue two hours of pill-popping, trash-talking, wine-chugging, joint-smoking, and large amounts of general Southern a-hootin’ and a-hollerin’.
There are exactly twelve characters in this movie, and roughly ten or eleven of them are loathsome, horrid individuals. Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep are joined by Julianne Nicholson, Juliette Lewis, Abigail Breslin, Margo Martindale, Misty Upham, Chris Cooper, Ewan McGregor, Dermot Mulroney and Benedict Cumberbatch. Though everybody appears positively angelic next to the demonic Streep, even the nicest characters here don’t hesitate to attack people with shovels.
Lets get things straight – this is a highfalutin soap opera. Forget the prestigious awards and Oscar nominations, and leave all notions of subtlety or restraint at the door, because anyone expecting lofty literary pretensions or hardline dramatic repartee from August: Osage County should brace themselves for protracted scenes of rowdy, round-the-table shrieking.
Director John Wells, much to his presumed chagrin, has accidentally turned a very serious play into a camp classic. While the source material itself inspires the occasional guffaw, Meryl and co glam things up to stratospheric heights of silliness, and for every ponderous TS Eliot quote, there’s handful of nutty one-liners, like, “Don’t get all Carson McCullers on me!” or “Eat the fish, bitch!”, complete with funny wigs.
But is this necessarily a ‘bad’ thing? Actually, it’s kind of fun, in a goofy Steel Magnolias kind of way. As riveting and emotionally gut-punching as certain dramatic scenes may be, they’re almost immediately countered by the onslaught of jabs about expanding waistlines or advancing ages. Think ‘Real Housewives of Oklahoma’ crossed with a William Faulkner novel.
Equal parts trashy and wacky, Streep camps it up to eleven in what must be her most cartoonish role to date. Hardly a scene escapes her dilated eye-rolling, demented cackle or torrent of personal abuse. Roberts is similarly loathsome, her shrill unpleasantness rivalling her monster momma’s total lack of humanity.
Watching such respected actors wallow in the muck is undeniably captivating, though one wonders whether the resulting vaudeville entertains for the wrong reasons. In the league of Letts adaptations, the depraved diva decadence on display here lacks both Killer Joe’s shock factor and the sweaty claustrophobia of Bug.
It’s not high art, but it sure is entertainment.
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