Film Reviews


By • Dec 30th, 2013 •

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In December 2007, a theatrical miracle occurred. The esteemed Steppenwolf Company of Chicago, co-founded by fellow actors, Gary Sinise, Terry Kinney and Jeff Perry in 1974, brought a brutal, vicious comedy of ill manners – the definitive family feud horror – titled, “August: Osage County,” to Broadway. It played for years in a large, musical house, the Imperial, on 45th Street, before transferring next door to a smaller musical venue, The Music Box. The play is the masterpiece of the lacerating Steppenwolf writer/actor, Tracy Letts, who, remarkably, won both the Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Best Play of 2008. “August” garnered five Tony Awards including its’ leading and featured actresses, the set designer, the director and the author.

For December 2013, and the subsequent award season, the Weinstein brothers have butchered the film version of this great play. Too bad that Harvey Weinstein thinks he knows more about filmmaking than anyone he hires. Or did they think that by acquiring this great play, and obtaining the superb Meryl Streep to play the lead, plus a name cast, they were all the way home? They have even scrubbed the play of its final, horrifying twist ending and replaced it with an inappropriate, disappointing finale. Something sort of upbeat to counter the dismaying behavior that has gone before, which appalled audiences have witnessed.

Letts maintains his sole screenplay credit, but his work has been badly cut and misdirected. His play was first directed, impeccably, by Anna D. Shapiro, with a no-name Steppenwolf ensemble. So what if Shapiro had no screen credits, she had the pulse of this three-hour howl fest, and should have been permitted to put the play on film along with a cinematic aide.

The problem in making the play-to-film transition is that most all of the characters in AUGUST are larger-than-life gargoyles; they are all theatrical creatures, and the only one who comprehends this – is Meryl Streep, a great stage actress, grounded in theater before she became our greatest woman film star. But Streep’s monster is just horrifying, when she should also have been hilarious. Streep seems to behave on her own, without an experienced film/theater director to tone her down. Film is a brutally realistic medium, so it’s difficult to make this definitive satire of truly awful family soap operas fit the flatness of the big screen.

With a name cast, headed by Streep as the vile Violet Weston, the most monstrous Mother of them all; Julia Roberts as her furious eldest daughter, Barbara; Sam Shepard, the father who offs himself early on and acquits himself well; Chris Cooper, Ewan McGregor, plus the ubiquitous Benedict Cumberbatch, how could they go so wrong? (And what the hell are the two Brits, McGregor and Cumberbatch, doing in such Americana?)

The mistake was in hiring a name television director, John Wells, (“E.R.” and “The West Wing”) to adapt the play, by cutting out an hour of the play’s running time (two hours is best for movie theater exhibitors), but this prestigious turkey is no Christmas treat, and Wells misdirects his name cast.

Of course, the producing Weinstein Brothers are seeking end-of the-year award glory, but, six years after the play’s Broadway acclaim, most of the heat has gone out of this truncated release. One hopes that the Weinsteins might restore the missing hour of the play for the DVD version, but I fear it was never shot.

I have never seen Meryl Streep so over-the-top awful, in a part that should have been a treat for her, in a grey fright-wig or a full, unbecoming, too-deep black creation. Violet is pill-raddled, suffering from cancer of the mouth, and a capable director like Mike Nichols, with whom Streep has so often worked, would have been shrewd and forceful enough to reign in her scenery-chewing performance. Oddly, the play’s rival harridan, Violet’s sister, played by the obscure, plump, Margo Martindale, steals the film from Streep by underplaying, and wins my non-Academy vote for this year’s Best Supporting Actress.

What is so desperately wrong with this film is that by condensing the play, we are constantly confused by the family ties, as well as all of the corroding relationships. We really need some sort of Who’s Who device as to who is tongue-lashing whom and why. The name cast is largely indistinct.

There is much talk of Julia Roberts being nominated for awards, but although Roberts has dropped her sweet, warm and cuddly persona for the stressed-out, straightened hair and furious anger of the eldest of Violet’s three daughters, she only convinces me of her intense, one-note sincerity. (Without much make-up, Roberts’ over-40 face has elongated into Agnes Moorehead-like horsey, and, over-40 is usually the Hollywood cut-off for women stars.) Roberts demonstrates that she is only a film-star and, quite visibly, a non-actress, as Streep rolls off pyrotechnic cadenzas of hatred around, in, and over her. Roberts stands up to her hateful mother (Streep) but Meryl wins every round, because Streep has a superb actor’s technique and the dominating role.

The play was horribly funny, but the film is just inert – despite all the plate-smashing and other dinner table explosions. The film is also awfully dark, bleak, faded yellow and black. In fact, the shades are drawn most of the time and, at a time when families tend to gather for the Winter holidays, these Okie, Weston dinners are truly the meals from hell. The point is that the film wants desperately to be taken seriously or to be profoundly important, when the great writer/actor Letts is actually violently and horribly funny from the get-go.

Did the Weinstein brothers even consider the discredited William Friedkin of the memorable, THE FRENCH CONNECTION of 1971 and THE EXORCIST of 1973? Friedkin began, in the Sixties, by skillfully transforming plays into films with Pinter’s THE BIRTHDAY PARTY (1968) and Crowley’s THE BOYS IN THE BAND (1970). BOYS is a cinematic essay in how to make a terrific film from a scathing, one-set show – even better than the stage version – and employing the entire, original, no-name cast.

Friedkin is as much an egotistical horror show as any character in AUGUST, and he has made good low-budget films of Tracy Lett’s lesser plays, BUG (2007) and KILLER JOE (2012). Moreover, in recent years Friedkin has become a fine director of opera. Soap Operatic-style is what AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY urgently requires. But, of course, John Wells is a prestigious TV director, eager and compliant, and hungry for his big screen, all-star opportunity.

On the basis of my first and last Sterling Manhattan Cable Television interview with “Billy” Friedkin, in 1971, concerning THE BOYS IN THE BAND, Friedkin was the most vile-mouthed egomaniac in the film industry that I have ever encountered. Although I kept pleading with him to tone it down, the cable company destroyed the tape and told me that I had failed to control my subject and could, therefore, no longer interview for them.

But I am just rethinking a film that has been poorly produced and directed. Actually, Weinstein and Friedkin might have given the cast a few object lessons.

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