August: Osage County
Some plays just don’t really adapt to the big screen and I fear this is one of them. Not that I saw the play, winner of a Tony award, and three hours long. ERdirector John Wells has cut it down to a more cinematic two, and Tracy Letts adapted his own screenplay. Did you know, by the way, that he is also an actor – recently seen as ambitious senator Andrew Lockhart in Homelandand winner of a Best Actor Tony for his 2013 Broadway Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Born in the mid-west, in Minnesota where Osage County is set, he purposefully calls his dysfunctional family the Westons in a nod to the old American Dream of ‘Go West, young man’. For this is a parable about modern America and the failure of the dream seen through the eyes of one family.
Trapped in a crumbling house in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by bleached fields and long, black roads, Beverly Weston – ‘My wife takes pills, I drink’ – escapes his hellish marriage by disappearing. His wife, Vi, is living with mouth cancer and is self-medicating to the point of insensibility. She summons her sister and daughters to be with her until the inevitable body is found: Beverly would rather die than continue to live with this harpy.
As the family members trickle in, we see how damaged they all are – from disintegrating marriages, incestuous relationships, child abuse – the whole gamut of life experiences in a familial one-stop-shop. Meryl Streep as Vi takes centre stage with her poisonous and vituperative attacks at what is meant to be the funeral dinner: no-one is spared her vicious tongue, not even her granddaughter who is pilloried for being a vegetarian and calling her own disloyal mother, damaged Barbara (Julia Roberts), a liar: ‘You know if ever I called my mom a liar she would knock my goddam head off my shoulders’.
Barbra is of course terrified of turning into Vi, but takes both control and the mantle when she yells, ‘I am running things now,’ as she yanks the pills out of Vi’s clenched fists in one of the most gruelling scenes of the movie. For gruelling it is, this two hour marathon of little else than screaming and shouting – it doesn’t matter who, everybody is at it, apart from Little Charles, an unlikely gauche performance by our own Benedict Cumberbatch.
As an adapted stage-play it is of course all about dialogue, and there’s plenty of that, delivered in high volume. It is a cacophony of sound, with the only respite in some wide-panning shots of their rural prison. Letts’s favourite scene in the film, which he was barely involved in as he was on Broadway during filming, is when Vi escapes from the car and makes a run for it, into the vast Minnesota wheat fields. When Barbara finally brings her down she says, ‘There’s nowhere to go’. It’s a pretty bleak outlook for the Westons.
The ensemble is terrific, as you would expect in a Broadway play. Streep is in Oscar-winning mode, cantankerous, bravely bald, chain smoking and utterly vile; Margot Martindale as her sister Mattie-Fae gives Streep a good run for her money, in a performance tempered with humour; the other two daughters are long suffering Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) and a less convincing Juliette Lewis as escapee Karen; we also have an understated Ewan McGregor as Barbara’s long-suffering husband; and perhaps the only nice character – apart from Little Charles – is his dad Charlie, Mattie-Fae’s peacemaker of a husband, gently played by Chris Cooper. You can’t fault the actors.Hollywood focus groups disliked the movie’s original ending, and Wells subsequently tacked on a more user-friendly version. This only adds to the confusion of trying to make a perfectly good play into an entertaining movie, something that didn’t come off in Carnage either. Stick to the knitting, or to Shakespeare!