Chicago playwright Tracy Letts' Pulitzer Prize-winning play "August: Osage County," which premiered at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre in June 2007, is now an all-star cast Hollywood feature film opening nationwide today.
For anyone lucky enough to have seen Letts' stage story perfection on the Steppenwolf stage during the original launch, or the cast that anchored the Broadway New York run or if you caught the national tour that starred Estelle Parsons in the lead and stopped back in Chicago in 2009, the movie telling doesn't fit the same mold.
The film, with a reported $25 million price tag, is directed by John Wells and produced by George Clooney, Jean Doumanian, Grant Heslov, Steve Traxler, and Bob and Harvey Weinstein with an ensemble cast led by Meryl Streep in the main role of Violet, the matriarch of a dysfunctional family and Julia Roberts as her put-upon daughter Barbara. Juliette Lewis and Julianne Nicholson play the other two daughters, all called back to the lofty family home when their father, Beverly Weston (a quick cameo turn by Sam Shepard) is suddenly missing.
The movie slant, to this remarkable tale of family woe, secrets and discovery, is so over-the-top, it's difficult to become invested in any of the characters.
Streep is especially overly-animated as the desperate wife and mother who faces illness by addiction to various prescription pills. One dinner scene featuring a menu of catfish, is so ridiculous, it feels like a parody.
The subplots, such as daughter Barbara's struggles with her marriage to husband Bill, played by Ewan McGregor and their withdrawn daughter, played by Abigail Breslin, are quickly lost under the weight of the forced drama that ensues in scene after scene of what feels like choreographed bickering.
Dermot Mulroney is fun as a sleazy finance, and Violet's sister, the family's touchstone Aunt Mattie Fae, played by Margo Martindale, offers some of the best and most believable, honest moments. I was less impressed with the all-too-brief role of the cousin, "Little" Charles Aiken as played by Benedict Cumberbatch, a storyline which factors as a major plot point. Misty Upham offers a worthy performance as Johnna Monevata, the family caregiver and housekeeper.
Clocking in at two hours, this dark comedy feels much longer and emotionally draining, slowed by the many scene changes. (The play uses one lone, but very elaborate multi-level house set which suffices quite nicely, placing the emphasis on the characters, rather than scene setting landscapes.)
The film is rated R and the language is rough and intense throughout most of this journey, which seems to circle itself lost in a desperation that borders on demise.