August: Osage County bashes red states and Chekhov
As the film version of August: Osage County finally, mechanically winds down, it reveals playwright Tracy Letts’ goal: His unoriginal view of domestic squabbling goes from warmed-over Edward Albee to room-temperature Chekhov in a scene where three adult sisters Barbara, Karen, Ivy (Julia Roberts, Julianne Nicholson, Juliette Lewis) discuss frustrations regarding their gorgon, pill-popping mother Violet (Meryl Streep). It’s staged as a classic three sisters confab like in Cries and Whispers but Ingmar Bergman knocked your eyes out, here director John Wells fixates on drab ordinariness as if revealing shattering truth.
Wells’ pretense is the most laughable thing about this unfunny movie which the Weinstein Company is trying to sell as an edgy Oscar comedy. Letts’ superficial drama toys with death, suicide, incest, greed, jealousy no differently than a sitcom but heavy-handedly. (This damn thing even begins with a T.S. Eliot quote–”Life is very long”–the same one Morrissey wittily turned into a threnody in The Smiths’ “The Queen Is Dead.”)
At first I enjoyed watching the actors say theatrical dialog (Streep’s voice has never been deeper, harsher, sharper but she’s still over-acting up a storm and Julia Roberts’s anger commands interest then stays the same). But Letts’ theatrical conceit–a profane version of Chekhov no better than corn pone Beth Henley–becomes offensively shallow. “This madhouse is my home” Barbara snaps then complains “I can’t perpetuate this myth of Family.”
Letts and Wells must think such cynicism is new. It’s not even up-to-date. Todd Solondz’s ingenious examinations of Jewish-American self-reproach (Storytelling, Palindromes, Life During Wartime, Dark Horse) go into ethnicity and then deeper. Letts is stuck at a sophomoric level; his semi-educated characters speak of “Gordian knots” and a teenage druggie-savant (Abigail Breslin) describes life as “A random selection of cells” but they all lack Solondz’s understanding that such nihilism is redundant and risible; Letts intends pathos.
And then there’s crazily sentimental music–indie mush, sub-Philip Glass piano arpeggios–and even a Native American-ex-machina played by Missy Upham who’s here just to contrast the loopy racist white folk. At least when William Friedkin directed Letts’ Bug and Killer Joe he kept things moving; this film is weighed down by its theatrical dialogue–the only thing going for it.
Letts and Wells congratulate their own crabbiness by alluding to “the spiritual affliction of the Blues.” Hah! August: Osage County is titled ridiculously as if documenting some phase of sociological history (another Red State denigration) but this story of self-devouring Okies has nothing in common with the soulful laments of the Blues–or even authentic Country & Western songs. Letts’ b.s. would make Merle Haggard vomit without drinking.
Follow Armond White on Twitter at 3xchair