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Strengths, flaws follow ‘August: Osage County’ to the big screen



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Updated: February 15, 2014 6:17AM

Something in the zeitgeist grabbed hold of Tracy Letts’ “August: Osage County” when it received its world premiere at Steppenwolf Theatre in June 2007 and triggered the sort of rare, hyperventilating response all but unheard of for new plays.

With its three acts, three hours of running time and, above all, its story that seemed magically tailored to enable the Steppenwolf clan to morph into the Westons of Oklahoma, “August” served up the dysfunctional American family in a way that called to mind both the hallucinatory riffs of Eugene O’Neill and the shrill rants of Jerry Springer. I was in the minority thinking it was overstuffed with the whole litany of warped, transgressive behaviors (pill-popping, alcoholism, adultery, potential incest, racism, ageism, suicide, the grotesque quest for self-actualization, corruption of a minor and more). But the feverish acting of the airtight ensemble was thrilling. And, not surprisingly, the play moved on to Broadway (with most of the original cast intact), received a Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award, set out on a national tour and found its way onto stages from London to Tel Aviv and Buenos Aires to Sydney.

While it played on Broadway, there was a persistent buzz about all the A-List Hollywood actresses who were flocking to see the show and almost salivating at the prospect of nabbing one of the many strong female roles in what was destined to become a film.

I was more than a little perplexed when it was announced that John Wells, who had worked almost entirely in television, was selected to direct this plum property’s film incarnation. And by the time I caught up with the film this past weekend, I was well aware it had received what were, at best, “mixed” reviews. (It was then wholly eclipsed at the Golden Globe Awards.)

Yet much to my surprise I found the film — for which Letts wrote the wholly faithful screenplay — to have many of the same strengths and weaknesses as the stage version. And though “August” is a work that is essentially by, for and of the theater, the intense dialogue translates well, as does the iconic post-funeral, dinner-from-hell scene. If something is largely lost in translation to film it is Letts’ periodically raucous humor.

An added pleasure comes from seeing what is outside the Westons’ large white house: those Oklahoma plains complete with bales of hay, an emptiness at once beautiful and lonely, and a golden light that contrasts so perfectly with the dreary interior of the home that we learn could never compensate for the dirt-poor childhoods of its owners — Violet Weston (Meryl Streep) and her husband, Beverly (Sam Shepard, in an opening “narration” that seems unfairly chopped).

Letts wrote the role of Violet, the cancer-and-demon-ridden matriarch, for Deanna Dunagan, an actress of great subtlety and dry wit. Streep is far more flamboyant, but she gives a harrowing performance, and because she is an actress of both stage and screen, she knows how to make Letts’ dialogue pop. The big surprise here is Julia Roberts (in the role of oldest daughter Barbara, originally played by Amy Morton). Her riveting performance, with emotions that read in a truly cinematic (unspoken) way, might well be the finest of her career.

Margo Martindale captures none of the rowdy humor that Rondi Reed brought to the role of Mattie Fae, Violet’s savior/destroyer sister, although as her saintly husband Charlie, Chris Cooper is perfection. Julianne Nicholson and Juliette Lewis play Barbara’s sisters, and Nicholson’s achingly scrubbed face and Lewis’ tarty vacuousness are expertly juxtaposed in this film in which the closeups intensify the play’s strongest theme — that what is visited on the parents will be revisited in one form or another on their children, no matter how fiercely they might fight this unholy inheritance.

Will Steppenwolf diehards reject the film? Maybe, out of loyalty to “the tribe.” But they are a relatively small group, and they certainly can’t say Letts altered the script. As for those who never saw any stage version, they might find the whole thing too talky and overwrought for film. But the winningly lean minimalism of Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska” didn’t fare any better at the Golden Globes, and we’ll have to wait until Thursday for the Oscar nominations.


Twitter: @HedyWeissCritic

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