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With: Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Chris Cooper, Ewan McGregor, Margo Martindale, Sam Shepard, Dermot Mulroney, Julianne Nicholson, Juliette Lewis, Abigail Breslin, Benedict Cumberbatch
Written by: Tracy Letts, based on his play
Directed by: John Wells
MPAA Rating: R for language including sexual references, and for drug material
Running Time: 121
Date: 12/25/2013

August: Osage County (2013)

2 Stars (out of 4)

'County' Lines

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Over the past few years, the great director William Friedkin has brought two Tracy Letts plays to the big screen, with masterful results. Both Bug (2007) and Killer Joe (2012) were incredible films, both highly underrated. Now here comes another Letts play, August: Osage County, made by a slightly less intriguing director than Friedkin, John Wells. He has only made one other feature, The Company Men, which I did not see.

But August: Osage County comes out a far cry from Friedkin's two films, and yet -- of course -- it is being positioned at the end of the year for Oscar consideration, whereas the astounding performances in Friedkin's films, by Ashley Judd and Matthew McConaughey at the very least, were ignored.

Whereas Friedkin's two adaptations were unquestionably cinema, August: Osage County is very much still a play. Most of the story takes place in a single house, over the course of a few days, with characters most often talking around a kitchen table, though sometimes they talk around a porch swing, or by the back door.

The actors seem very aware that this is a play, and they act for the back rows, with volume and hysterics. Some of these actors are among the finest alive today -- and one may be the finest -- so they sometimes pull it off, but the overall effect is stagnant.

It begins with the death of Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard). He is survived by his pill-popping wife, Violet (Meryl Streep), and a large family. They all arrive for the funeral and a big family dinner. There are three middle-aged sisters, Barbara (Julia Roberts), Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), and Karen (Juliette Lewis), and despite the fact that I love all three of these actresses, they never for one moment seemed like sisters.

Barbara brings her husband, Bill (Ewan McGregor), who is on the verge of leaving her, and their teen daughter, Jean (Abigail Breslin). Karen brings a date, a man named Steve (Dermot Mulroney) who offers pot to young Jean and treats her as a sexual object. Ivy is secretly dating her cousin, "Little Charles" (Benedict Cumberbatch).

Beverly has a sister, Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale), who is the mother of Little Charles. Finally, her husband is the long-suffering Charlie (Chris Cooper). I must admit that I most identified with Charlie and McGregor's Bill, who seem entirely fed up with this clan and occasionally tell people to shut up.

It seems as if the emotions escalate as the movie goes on, and as dirty secrets become public over the course of the few days. I suppose that if the play is staged well, or if the film had been directed well, these emotions would rise subtly and naturally. But in this movie, they're like tidal waves, destructive and oppressive.

It feels a bit like disrespect to say this; Letts is clearly a talented playwright and these actors have proven themselves outstanding. But the disparate pieces that come together for this project just don't quite work. At the end, I was glad to get out of this County.

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