It's hard to discuss August: Osage County, John Wells' adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name, without focusing largely, if not solely on Meryl Streep's central performance. Though Tracy Letts' play is very much an ensemble work, one which encompasses three generations of a family who are brought together by the disappearance and death of their patriarch (Sam Shepard), Violet, the drug-addled, cancer-riddled harridan whose harsh, narcotised ramblings punctuate the play, is the dominant force of the story. More than that, though, Streep's performance is so indicative of everything that doesn't work about the film version that it's hard to really get across how bad it is without focusing on her. She's not the only thing wrong with Wells' film, but she is the most readily identifiable.
Oftentimes decked out in sunglasses and a black fright wig and talking in a staccato, almost Beat-like cadence that makes it seem like she is auditioning to play Bob Dylan circa Don't Look Back, Streep's Violet is untethered from everything happening around her. While that feels somewhat appropriate, given that she spends most of the film medicated beyond all sense, it quickly becomes apparent that she has only one note to play and she is going to screech it for the entire duration. Something that initially seems bracing quickly becomes grating, especially since it seems to have no notable effect on the people around her. She treats her family abominably, and while that is meant to bring out the worst in them - particularly her oldest daughter, Barbara (Julia Roberts) - the film doesn't ratchet up the conflict until the very last act, at which point it feels horribly unnatural and forced.
Violet's unceasing abrasiveness in and of itself isn't a terrible thing - her insistence on truth-telling and making everyone around her uncomfortable is the cancerous heart and driving force of Lett's play - and Streep's performances isn't necessarily bad (though it does often dally with high camp), it just feels fundamentally wrong and out of step. She feels like she's been dropped in from another film, one that is pitched with an overwrought theatricality that isn't matched by anything else in Wells' film.
Streep's performance and its incongruity is the central problem with August: Osage County: it's an adaptation that fundamentally misses the appeal of its source. Letts' play is not just a bleak exploration of the character of people who grew up on the harsh, unforgiving Plains - an aspect which is barely touched upon in the film - but it's also aggressive in its insistence on being a work of theatre. On stage, the entire story takes place within a meticulously designed set of the Weston family house, and the story ekes much of its intensity from how claustrophobic its setting, with its blacked out windows and palpable heat, is. Its characters have nowhere to go, so they are forced to spend time with each other, and this forced proximity is where tension, secrets and deeply unsettling truths emerge.
By attempting to open the play out, moving scenes around and staging conversations in locations that are outside the immediate vicinity of the house, the film loses a lot of the sweaty intensity that gives the play its power. The screenplay, which is by Letts' himself, retains most of the words of the stage version, but the atmosphere is totally missing. Though the film does reduce some relationships - particularly the one between Violet's granddaughter Jean (Abigail Breslin), and her daughter Karen's (Juliette Lewis) ridiculously sleazy fiancee (Dermot Mulroney) which, while not a major part of the play, makes a lot more sense than the truncated film version - and soften some of the plays harsher exchanges, its fatal flaw is in allowing the characters and the audience brief moments of respite. None of the action makes much sense if we don't feel utterly trapped in a madhouse.
It doesn't help that the attempts to expand the world of the story amount to little more than including flatly staged scenes in cars in addition to many flatly staged scenes inside the house. Wells' style, which veers towards naturalism and letting the actors get on with their work, feels at odds with the arch, heavily stylised dialogue, which means that you are always conscious just how much everyone is capital-A Acting. Worse than that, though, is that each individual performance feels at odds with every other performance in the film. Streep's out of place because her turn doesn't chime with the movie star blandness of Julia Roberts and Ewan McGregor (as Barbara's estranged husband), but Roberts and McGregor are also at odds with the light, broadly comic performances that Margot Martindale and Chris Cooper give as Violet's sister and brother-in-law, or Benedict Cumberbatch's jittery, harried turn as Martindale and Cooper's son. Each performance feels like it has been directed by someone else, or like it's barely been directed at all, and the resultant tone is incredibly messy.
As far as Tracy Letts adaptations go, August: Osage County has nothing like the sustained, suffocating dread that William Friedkin brought to his adaptations of Bug and Killer Joe, and what should be a pitch black dissection of The Plains as a state of mind, and the way it infects multiple generations of one family, ends up being a wildly misjudged family drama, complete with tacked on, vaguely uplifting final shot and incomprehensibly upbeat end credits. While all the words might be right, the tune is all wrong.