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Stage classic comes off shrill, cold

POSTED: January 9, 2014 1:00 a.m.

“Life is very long.”

“August: Osage County,” based on Tracy Letts’ highly acclaimed play, begins with the aging writer Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard) quoting that line from T.S. Eliot as he ruminates.

Beverly commits suicide a couple of scenes later, abandoning us to an ensemble of characters so excruciating to endure that one understands completely why Beverly would take his own life.

After Shepard’s far-too-early exit, the movie focuses on the Weston women as they deal with not only the loss of their husband and father but also the abundance of secrets and lies harbored among all members of the family.

Beverly’s wife Violet (Meryl Streep) has drunk herself into dementia and a host of physical ailments. Eldest daughter Barbara (Julia Roberts) resents her husband (Ewan McGregor) for a recent infidelity. Their daughter (Abigail Breslin) is doing her best impression of a rebellious teenager, complete with a newly acquired smoking habit.

Long-single Weston daughter Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) has finally fallen in love, but the relationship is, of course, forbidden. Flighty daughter Karen is played by Juliette Lewis, which should tell you everything you need to know about the character. Her scumbag boyfriend (Dermot Mulroney) tags along solely to provide a plot point late in the film.

Violet’s sister Mattie (Margo Martindale) spends all of her time henpecking her husband (Chris Cooper) and demeaning their son (Benedict Cumberbatch), whom she has kept in a perpetual state of arrested development.

The family crisis provides the perfect setting for everyone to verbally abuse each other until we build to a climactic epiphany viewers will see coming an hour before it plays out.

The Eliot quote comes from his poem “The Hollow Men,” to which “August: Osage County” owes a lot thematically. But then, many films and literary works owe a debt to that poem, which has to be one of the most quoted of the past century. You might recognize its final lines: “This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but a whimper.”

So it isn’t novel or profound to begin a film with a quote from that Eliot poem, or for that matter, any other.

That’s the core problem of “August: Osage County.” It gathers borrowed tropes, character types and references into a family drama that fails to move for the very fact that it seems so familiar.

Even the title of the play/film is borrowed. It was the title of a poem by Howard Starks. Letts isn’t being dishonest. She dedicates her play to Starks and announces she borrowed the title.

Still, the title and opening line are indications of just how derivative the script is. For all of the fire and brimstone the actors rain down on each other, the film only takes us to places we have been before.

The only thing that distinguishes this script is how ugly its characters get.

Streep and Roberts each explode into fits of emotional cruelty that rival Elizabeth Taylor in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.” They give impressive but relentlessly off-putting performances, and despite being uniformly strong, the supporting players don’t provide the humanity this story desperately needs.

Sometimes a movie production blessed with every possible advantage doesn’t produce a quality movie. It’s one of the mysteries of cinema.

From the producers, who include George Clooney and Grant Heslov, to the all-star cast and crew, this is a dream team. Heck, even the editor, Stephen Mirrione, and the set decorator, Nancy Haigh, have won Oscars. And for the record, the film is technically superb.

Letts’ play won the Pulitzer Prize and the original Broadway production garnered five Tony awards, including best play.

What should have added up to great drama instead comes across as shrill and cold.

It’s also a truism that some plays do not translate well to film. That seems to be the only explanation for why “August: Osage County” fails.

This one was better left on the stage.

Jeff Marker is head of the Communication, Media & Journalism Department at the University of North Georgia. His reviews appear weekly in Get Out and on gainesvilletimes.com/getout.


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