‘August: Osage County’ review from a fan of the award-winning play

This review is courtesy of guest blogger Sarah Johnson who mainly writes reviews for the Twin Cities Film Fest.

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Well, I’ll say one thing for “August: Osage County” – I wouldn’t wait until August to see it. When the play opened on Broadway in 2007, Charles Isherwood, the New York Times theater critic, called it “a fraught, densely plotted saga of an Oklahoma clan in a state of near-apocalyptic meltdown.” That sounds about right. It focuses on the Weston clan in the sweltering weeks of August. Ewan McGregor, Dermot Mullroney, Chris Cooper, Sam Shepard and Benedict Cumberbatch play the male roles in the movie but the story is really about the strong-willed women in the family and a crisis that brings them all home.

After it won the Tony Award for Best Play and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, I saw it when the touring production came to Ordway Center in St. Paul in 2010. That was more than three years ago and I still think it’s the best play I’ve ever seen. Whenever I see the movie version of a show after I see the live version that I really liked I always wonder- Am I going to like it as much? I did and for two reasons.
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The first is the incomparable Meryl Streep as Violet Weston, the venom-spewing matriarch suffering from mouth cancer in a drug-induced haze. Her performance reminded me of Elizabeth Taylor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? At a family dinner, she doesn’t just re-open old wounds, she rips off the scabs and pours a gallon of salt in them. It’s one of those hypnotic performances you can’t take your eyes from.
I’m not the biggest Julia Roberts fan in the world but she does a good job of stripping away her sometimes annoying toothy grin acting style and admirably portrays Barbara, the oldest daughter. (I would say as the oldest with her own daughter she has the most baggage but every character in the show has enough baggage to fill a stagecoach.) Of course, Roberts’s problem is she’s playing opposite Meryl Streep. Good luck with that.
The second thing I noticed about this film was in the opening credits. Tracy Letts, who wrote the book for the Broadway play, also wrote the screenplay for the movie. Of course, I was thinking after seeing the movie, who else could have adapted this? The movie is about an hour shorter than the play (the live version actually had two intermissions and, believe me, you needed both of them) but it doesn’t lose much impact.
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It’s obvious Edward Albee (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) and Eugene O’Neill (Long Day’s Journey Into Night) were influences on Letts. Not knowing anything about his background, part of me wonders what happened in his life to enable him to write such a savage tale of family dysfunction? Drug abuse, incest, suicide, mental illness, alcoholism…yep, it’s all there.
Shows like August: Osage County ring so true because everyone can relate to them. But what gives this one an edge of reluctant comedy is when you start to think, “Geez, my family may be weird but at least they’re not as messed up as these people!” I think anyone could go on and on about the multiple layers in this show. Having seen both versions, I can say while the play seemed more visceral and intimate as you were watching this catastrophe unfold before you in real time, it closed on Broadway in 2009 and the national tour was only at the Ordway for a short time. If you didn’t get a chance to see either of those (or even if you did), the movie is your chance to see it on the big screen. Don’t miss it.
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5 out of 5 reels

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Thoughts on this movie and/or the cast? We’d love to hear it!

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29 thoughts on “‘August: Osage County’ review from a fan of the award-winning play

  1. Good review Ruth. From a person who hasn’t seen the play but has seen this movie, I have to say, the acting is great. However, a little too much of it seems everybody’s “over-acting” their roles, and forgetting that their roles are indeed characters, with hearts, souls and all that.

    1. Hi Dan! This is my friend Sarah’s review. I haven’t seen the play either but I hear ya about the over-acting thing, I’m actually more impressed by the more understated performances of Margo Martindale, Julianne Nicholson and Benedict Cumberbatch here than the more noticeable Streep and Roberts.

  2. I’m not sure about seeing this as I did like Killer Joe that Letts wrote as I’m also eager to see Bug that he also wrote that is also helmed by William Friedkin. Maybe when it comes on TV as I’m not in a rush to see it.

    1. Fair enough Steven, though it’s still good enough to rent to see the performances. I think the supporting cast, even Benedict in a small role, actually makes more of an impression to me.

  3. jackdeth72

    Welcome, Sarah:

    Intriguing review!

    I enjoy that Hollywood in its infinite wisdom brings forth a film that makes the sudience feel good. In having a family not one tenth as messed up as the one portrayed in ‘August: Osage County.’

    Very nice touch and hat tip to Albee and O’Neill in creating such a rich and resounding script, mood and dialogues.

    1. “…having a family not one tenth as messed up as the one portrayed in ‘August: Osage County.’” Ha..ha.. that’s right Jack, we should be blessed about that don’t we? At times though some of scenes did remind me of my extended family gathering where my uncle had a screaming match w/ my grandma, ahah.

      1. No. Not at all. I wouldn’t even have nominated her. I think she is very good, but I don’t think she’s Oscar good.

        I think I said it in my review, too, but my favorite performer in this movie, by far, is Julianne Nicholson, followed by Chris Cooper and, probably, Benedict Cumberbatch. Julia Roberts would place fourth.

        1. I’m with you, wouldn’t even nominate her either, I mean it’s not any better than her previously-nominated performances to be honest. Yep, I love those performance and as a big fan of Benedict, I LOVE his singing scene 😀 Margo Martindale is also impressive here.

          1. Agreed on all points. Martindale would be my fifth favorite.

            Which isn’t to say Streep isn’t special – she is. It’s to say she’s, at times, a step or two too much. Not so much as to ruin the flick for me, but too much all the same.

  4. Hi Sarah–have not seen the play but it sounds dark like O’Neill and Albee would have created. Your review makes me want to rush out and see it. Hope it comes to my area soon.

  5. Ted S.

    I can’t say that I’m that interest in seeing this movie, I like the all the actors in the film but it’s just not something I’d want to spend my time watching. Maybe if it’s on TV someday, I’ll watch it.

    1. Yeah I was surprised that Sarah rated it so highly, but it’s an interesting perspective as she loves the play too. I love the performances as an ensemble, they should’ve won Best Ensemble at SAG.

  6. Nice review. I’m also not a fan of Julia Roberts, and yet she truly shined and impressed the hell out of me here. Definitely enjoyed this one. 🙂

    1. Hey Fernando! You’re a fan of Cumberbatch right? He’s marvelous here, wish he had a bigger role but it proves that he’s such a versatile actor!

  7. Sarah

    Thanks everyone for your insightful comments, as you can tell I’m an unabashed fan of the play and the movie. I also found it interesting that Meryl Streep was nominated for Best Actress. I thought it was a fabulous performance but at what point do they just give her a lifetime Oscar and be done with it! If you’re in the mood for a train wreck, this movie is for you.

  8. Great review Sarah! I was a big fan of Letts’ Killer Joe and Bug, so this is definitely a must see for me. I should be catching it on Friday. Really looking forward to it.

    1. Hey Mark! Curious to hear what you think. It’s fun to see the two Brits in the cast, McGregor and Cumberbatch. Esp the latter as I’m a big fan, I’d love to see him tackle this kind of roles more often!

  9. Hey sorry Ruth for the absence of commenting to your blog. Have troubles login in with twitter 😦 I did watched this one. I really loved Julia Robert’s performance, I think it’s the strongest of her I’ve ever seen (but I haven’t seen Erin Brokovich). I don’t know why Streep is nominated for this, she’s a bitter old woman in it and not at all represents superhero (the theme of this year’s Oscar).

    1. Hi Andina, that’s really odd that you’re having issues. Usually WP blogs are the easiest to comment on. Well, I’m glad to have you back 😀 I personally would not nominate Streep either, she was good but not phenomenal.

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