Adapting a film from a play is one of the hardest source materials to use for a script. For a book, sure, you have narration to deal with, but also a well laid out narrative and the freedom to create a universe from that material. Plays on the other hand are very much written as a play alone. Plays feature long soliloquies, smaller scaled setpieces, and usually are confined to one area throughout. Film, for the most part, is basically the direct opposite.
Although, some films are able to compete the task in different ways. Some films like Chicago and West Side Story embrace their stage roots, which actually earned both films a Best Picture Oscar. Other films, like Ron Howard’s great Frost/Nixon, take a play, and re-write it to make it smoother for a film adaptation. Other film’s like The Elephant Man completely change the play’s script, and basically make a new script that follows the basic plot of the play. The latest screen-to-film adaptation is August: Osage County, and while it has some big flaws from its adaptation, it’s largely a good effort.
August: Osage County follows a family who reunite after the loss of its patriarch. What ensues are plenty of twists, fights, and enough family drama to make your head spin.
An aspect that worried me walking into the film was the black comedy. From the clips I’ve seen, the comedy scenes itself were pretty funny to me, in a bad way. The infamous “Eat the Fish” clip puzzled me in more ways than one. Surprisingly, the comedy in this film works, and works quite well. This film really is not afraid to just go off into these insane places, as far as these character interactions go, and that makes for some big laughs. Even the fish scene works, and quite well in the context of the movie.
Eat the fucking fish!
This movie at its core is a performance piece, and my oh my there are some great ones. The standout for me has to be Julia Roberts though, whose role in the film is really not being talked about enough. Roberts for most of her career has done lighter, romantic comedy roles. Here, Roberts really does something new, becoming villainous in more ways than one. Still, Roberts really rides the line with her character, creating a balance for this sympathetic wreck of a person. Her role is perhaps the most pivotal of the film, and she executes it to near-perfection.
Surrounding Roberts are some of the more showy performances of the year, which are a hoot to watch. This certainly is not one of Meryl Streep’s best performances, but she is one of the best talents in the business, and is fully committed to the role here. Her character is almost insane, but there is a sort of odd charm to her, and in the end, you feel for the character and her hardships. Also really showing off here is Margo Martindale, whose character is very much similar to Streep’s. Martindale displays that Southern charm, while being accountable for a lot of the film’s laughs.
This cast is so big that there are even more performances that are quite good. Chris Cooper, Sam Shepard, Ewan McGregor, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Juliette Lewis all do a really good job in their respective roles. Cooper to me was another one of the standouts, delivering a character with depth mostly thanks to his efforts. Not to mention, everyone in the cast nails their Southern accents, which is impressive in its own right.
August: Osage County also really nails a sense of family, which was an essential quality to get right for this film. All of these actors are not only good, but really jell together. This film features a lot of long take scenes, that are just characters sitting down and discussing topics, which could derail the movie if the chemistry was not right. Throughout the film, from the dinner table arguments to the one-on-one speeches, all of these scenes nailed that sense of family, even with some of the out-of-the-box comedic material.
To me, this film at times can be very uneven, especially in tone. Throughout the film’s running time, it goes through sections of mostly bleak humor, and then big dramatic moments. At times, it can feel jarring to go from a scene with a great deal of laughs into a very dramatic, and sort of dark, scene.
Another issue is the direction, which is too laid back. Director John Wells has only directed one film before this (the mediocre The Company Men), and that lack of experience really shows. Wells seemed like he was very overwhelmed by the larger-than-life cast, as it seems like he just let the actors run wild without giving them that much direction. This movie needed a strong director, because as it is, this film has several issues because of this lack of direction.
In the play August: Osage County, there are a great deal of thematic elements that really have a big effect on the play, and make it the great play it is. While some of these themes are hinted at in the film, like the racial tension still present in the South and what family means, none of them are really executed to their full potential, which was the film’s biggest flaw.
It just seems like if Wells and company really wanted to make a great film out of this, they really should have went in another direction. The play is three hours long, and each and every minute is necessary. The film adaptation is an hour shorter than the play. In that missing hour, there is a lot of missing stuff from the play that worked great. While making the film three hours is not really needed, putting more of a priority on the thematic ideas that made the play what it is would have made this one of the year’s best films.
As it stands, August: Osage County is an entertaining film driven by great performances and big laughs, but misses the mark of adapting the great work it’s based on. Whether you are aware of the play or not, it’s certainly worth a watch. Although, those unaware of the play should really take the time to check it out; it’s great stuff.
Do a Shot: for each big family fight
Take a Drink: when Benedict Cumberbatch signs, a man of many talents.
Take a Drink: anytime another character takes one.
Take a Drink: for the maid, and her badass moment in the film.