“My wife takes pills and I drink,” says Daddy to the new housekeeper. Which is one reason in “August: Osage County,” opening Friday, why he may not be around long.
His family will be the focus of the whole film though, which is why we’re watching TV auteur John Wells’ (“ER”) shortened film version of Tracy Lett’s marathon Pulitzer Prize-winning play.
Our word now for such families is dysfunctional.
In the world of American drama, though, we’ve once again fallen into one template of American theater about such families: Daddy may not be long for this world, Mama may be a drug addict, the family will celebrate a get-together by saying god-awful things to each other and, at the end, horrible secrets will be revealed so that Americans can pride themselves on thinking that they, too, had a House of Atreus or an Oedipus family.
The operative word here is “theater.” I’d advise you to forget it, except that it’s the nature of the movie “August: Osage County” that you couldn’t forget it if you tried. It’s a filmed play through and through.
Nor will you forget that the filmed play was written by an actor. Here, then, is a film of a play by an actor, for actors in the hopes that audiences love them just for being actors.
Which many of us, of course, kind of do.
Which is why the film stars, for pity’s sake, Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Chris Cooper, the ubiquitous Margo Martindale, Julianne Nicholson, Juliette Lewis and that archetypal modern American actor/playwright Sam Shepard.
As an actor, the prize-winning playwright Tracy Letts is best known to most of us as the smug, gruesomely self-satisfied middle American new CIA head on Showtime’s “Homeland.”
He’s giving you the newest version of American Theater’s Template Drama (O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”) so that terrific actors can rev their engines impressively and, when given the right straightaways, can roar around the track like the dramatic super machines they are.
Streep plays Mama, who has mouth cancer and is a pill addict from way back. Roberts is her cynical, world-weary, literary daughter who makes sure we know all of Mama’s hiding places for her stash, including the funky anatomical ones. Fists will fly between those two before dinner is over.
Nicholson is one younger daughter. Juliette Lewis is another.
Without a visit by their tough, smart big sister, both of them would be in a lot of trouble.
The great Martindale and Cooper are in-laws with their own secrets.
Welcome to family drama. Pass the Freud, please. You can leave the salt and pepper down at your end of the table.
Daddy, it is revealed early on, is dead, a probable suicide. Things will not go well for this bunch as they gather for mutual mourning.
I’ve always had difficulty with the newer entries into the American Template Drama – the dysfunctional family gathered around to lacerate one another and reveal in the final act the big disgusting secret that explains everything. (Sophocles’ gift to democratic theatergoers a couple of millennia ago.) But the movie you’re watching here was written by an actor, no doubt, with the hope that actors with the staggering horsepower of these would give it their all.
And they do. With sneering self-satisfaction, Streep sprays acid all over her daughters and in-laws. Roberts, by my lights, steals the film by uncorking the actor’s chops she’s always had but was usually too busy effacing with movie star charm.
Everyone else is fine or better, as you would expect from a drama whose whole point is that actors get to be actors in each other’s company.
They’re so good at what they do that you’ll scarcely notice that, when you get right down to it, Osage County, Okla., is – dramatically speaking – an awfully dusty place.
Worth the visit. Personally, I wouldn’t be one of those eager to leave prizes there.
August: Osage County
Starring: Julia Roberts, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper, Margo Martindale, Sam Shepard, Julianne Nicholson
Director: John Wells
Running time: 120 minutes
Rating: R for language, drug material and sexual references.
The lowdown: Film version of Tracy Lett’s Pulitzer Prize winning play about a vicious, substance-addled family gathering in Oklahoma.