It's quite possible that August: Osage County, the new film directed by John Wells from Tracy Letts' adaptation of his own play, is the quintessential Weinstein production, more so than we've seen in years. It's got all the hallmarks: pedigreed source material (the play won the Pulitzer prize and a boatload of Tony Awards), a great cast of established actors with some mega stars mixed in, and constant melodrama that allows for these actors and actresses to play to the back row of the theater with as much bombast as possible. You can imagine the stars in Bob and Harvey's eyes (which may have been shaped like a certain golden statue) when they were putting this together.
The story is set up in a similar vein to many riffs on No Exit we've seen so often. The stage is set in the huge, foreboding house of the Weston family, located in Osage County, Oklahoma on the Great Plains. Beverly (Sam Shepard) and Violet (Meryl Streep) are its only remaining inhabitants, supported by their Native American Johnna (Misty Upham). When Beverly goes missing under questionable circumstances, the whole family converges on the house to deal with the impending tragedy. This is where the near-absurdity of the cast comes into full relief, as every new character that shows up is a familiar face. You've got the main family, consisting of Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor and Abigail Breslin. You've got Streep's sister and her husband, played by Margo Martindale and Chris Cooper. Throw in Juliette Lewis and new beau Dermot Mulroney, and you're eventually not all that surprised when Benedict Cumberbatch hits the screen for a smaller role. The only principal of the cast who isn't an easy to identify (for me at least) is Julianne Nicholson's Ivy (and she's got plenty of credits to her name, including extended runs on Boardwalk Empire, Law and Order: Criminal Intent and Masters of Sex). Under the wrong stewardship, a cast with this level of star power has the danger of overshadowing the source material to the point that you're looking at these characters as Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep instead of Barbara and Violet Weston.
Going into this film, if you gave me the choice of which actress between Roberts and Streep was more likely to overshadow her character due to a certain lack of subtlety, I would have to assume the culprit would be Roberts. She's not a bad actress by any means, but she was such a huge star in the 90's that there's a certain cache to her that can be difficult to divorce from the characters she's playing. Streep, on the other hand, is of course likely the best actress we've seen since Katherine Hepburn, which is basically all anyone needs to know. But in practice, the script is flipped. Roberts, who is definitely the lead of the film, regardless of the opinions of AMPAS, gives one of her best performances in recent memory, presenting us with a powerful portrait of a woman coming back to a home that offers no comfort, supporting a crumbling marriage and a rebellious daughter while simultaneously and reluctantly finding herself in a leadership role as her mother’s mental acuity deteriorates. Streep is given an outsized role and manages to push it even further, resulting in one of her very few complete missteps. She doesn’t bring anything notable to the character of Violet (in part a function of the script), opting to make her a fiery harpy of a woman with nothing to show of it beyond a scare wig and some stereotypically druggy behavior. It is often the case that Streep gives us something extra to work with, something that makes the role she is inhabiting something special that only she could do, but that is unfortunately not the case here.
Beyond Streep and Roberts, the cast ranges from middling to occasionally inspired. Abigail Breslin doesn’t have much to do with her generally clichéd mischievous teen, and Dermot Mulroney is similarly undercooked. On the other side of things, Chris Cooper and Margo Martindale are excellent at giving us another perspective on the older class, while also showing the similarities between the two sisters. Unfortunately, we do have to contend with one truly awful performance, surprisingly coming from rising star Benedict Cumberbatch. I can’t exactly blame him, he is cast entirely off type as a sort of overgrown child who may be mentally deficient. Such a role does not remotely play into Cumberbatch’s coolly intelligent strengths, and he doesn’t have the range of a Rowan Atkinson to successfully pull off both poles.
It’s disappointing, then, that Cumberbatch’s character figures so heavily into August: Osage County’s emotional and plot climaxes. With no interest in or emotional ties to Little Charles, we don’t care when the film’s big revelation hits. Try as Roberts, Martindale and Nicholson might, they cannot make us care. So the film, which had been spinning its wheels around familial drama and explosive shouting matches fails to deliver when it matters most (not unlike last year’s The Great Beauty, which similarly built to an underwhelming climax). It could be Letts’ script (culled down from the three hour stage version). It could be John Wells’ pedestrian directorial style. It could be Streep and Cumberbatch’s disappointing performances. It’s likely a combination of the three, but either way the film reaches out for that brass ring and falls short, tumbling into the inky blackness below.