In all my years of watching films, I have never quite seen a film like August: Osage County. That isn’t to say it is better or worse than all the other films I’ve watched, just it is incredibly unique and unlike any other family drama I have seen. This is the type of film you suspend disbelief in, and if you can fully commit to the family and their story, you’re going to have an interesting cinematic experience.
The film does not make use of subtle acting at all. Like they say, the performances are so acclaimed not because of “best acting” but because of “most acting”. This is a major flaw, because this film originates from a highly acclaimed play, but unlike other play adaptations, this film doesn’t subdue or tone down the theatrical qualities of the acting. These are loud, crass performances mostly delivered at the top of the actors’ lungs, and like it or not, that is the way it is. I think that is the reason why it didn’t receive much acclaim, but subtle acting – a look, a sigh or even just a whisper – can tell the same stories that a screaming fit can. I would forgive the actors for this, but when it is Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Chris Cooper, Margo Martindale, Benedict Cumberbatch and the rest of the ensemble, it has to be noted that they could have done a better job. I am not sure if I should attribute this to John Wells, who has yet to find his cinematic legs, or Tracy Letts, who had trouble letting go of his play when adapting it to film. It is ironic that the actor who gives the most subtle, perfect performance is arguably the least-known – Julianne Nicholson. Many people feel Streep was terrible in this. I, however, think she wasn’t bad but simply gave a different type of performance. She is of course Meryl Streep, and she can do what she wants because she’s earned it. While the performance wasn’t bad, she could have been a lot more subtle, and she very much overacted throughout the film. But Julia Roberts’ masterful performance shows how she hasn’t lost her considerable talents, and this is a good return to form for her. Margo Martindale and Julianne Nicholson were also painfully good but sadly overlooked for awards consideration.
I think Letts may have had trouble adapting his beloved play into a film – after all, it is his magnum opus. He sacrificed a lot of the storyline to fit the two-hour runtime, and it shows because the story seems very fast and rapid, when it should rather have a considerably slow, mellow pace. The lapse of time was confusing, and some characters are not fully developed, which I feel could have been solved if the film was just a tad longer. Characters come and go without explanation, and it sometimes feels like a very empty film. It does create a different experience, but it could be seen as unsatisfying if you want a genuine family drama.
The directing was choppy in places and rather uninspired at times, but I will attribute that to Wells not being as established as he could have been. I often wonder how this film would have fared in the hands of a true master like Mike Nichols or Clint Eastwood, who are both in need of another hit film. Wells did a fine job, but he didn’t give the source material the treatment it needed.
I really enjoyed August: Osage County mostly because it is an acting film – there is no need for beautiful scenic design (which they did a good job anyway) or special effects, because the pure acting that explodes from the film is phenomenal. It is an enjoyable film, and one that is as caustic and bitter as it is sweet and sentimental. It reminds one of their own family, and how it isn’t perfect, but you can’t choose it either, so accept it or run away – but there is no escaping the people you are related to, because you’re a part of them.
One of the best films of the year, but only for its brilliant performances and sheer optimism.