Mar 10, 2014

[Movies] August: Osage County (2013)

On the very night after we watched the local staging of August: Osage County, I was in love with the play enough to want to immediately watch the movie adaptation. Plus sheer curiosity had me wondering how they'd translate the different elements of the stage production into a full movie.

This is not to say that I expect all great plays to make great movies. If anything holds true when it comes to Hollywood in recent years, it feels like most adaptations ten to pale in comparison to their stage counterparts. And it's not that the movies are necessarily bad - they just end up being rather different entertainment experiences when compared to the original body of work.

This movie had a lot going for it in terms of the cast and its overall production value. I was prepared to love this movie given I knew that Meryl Streep would put on another brilliant performance in this film, as is her way as an actress, really. But then things kind of went weird with the writing and the changes made resulted in a rather different kind of movie.

Synopsis: August: Osage County is a 2013 drama movie adaptation of the stage play of the same name as created by Tracy Letts. The movie was directed by John Wells and Letts also created the screenplay for the movie. Wikipedia describes the movie being a "black comedy-drama," which is a rather weird way to describe it, quite frankly. But I can see why they thought about it along these lines.

In Osage County, we meet the once popular poet Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard) in the process of interviewing a native american woman (Misty Upham) as a live-in cook and caretaker for his wife, Violet (Meryl Streep). She's living with a form of mouth cancer and is constantly in pain - thus it has resulted in her becoming addicted to pain killers and other drugs. But some time later Beverly goes missing, and Violet calls in her sister and her daughters to comfort her and help her figure out what to do next.

So we slowly get to meet the rest of the clan as they to help Violet and yet also endure her rather unpleasant personality. There's her sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale), who is married to Charles (Chris Cooper). Violet's youngest daughter Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) is the only child who lives in town and so was there rater quickly as well. Violet's eldest daughter Barbara (Julia Roberts) eventually arrives with her husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) and their daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin). And eventually we meet the middle child Karen (Juliette Lewis) and her latest boyfriend Steven (Dermot Mulroney).

It's not often that the original writer gets involved in the screenplay for a movie adaptation - and this applies to both books and stage plays. But in this case it was sort of the ultimate goal of the original writer also being the sole screenplay writer - and so I think it's only fair to expect a pretty faithful adaptation of the original work. However one has to factor in what the producers think and even any input that comes from the actors as well - all these are diverse elements that can change the way a story pans out.

I don't precisely know what drove the changes to this particular story for the movie release, but there were a number of significant changes in terms of characters and plot. And while I try not to make direct comparisons between adaptations and their source material, I think it still needs to be noted that I found many of the changes resulted in a slightly weaker narrative and thus a different impact by the end of the movie.

One of the interesting shifts was the decision to reveal the full state of Violet's condition from the very beginning. Sure, her being sick was never a secret, but it wasn't necessarily to immediately showcase her in full make-up as an aged woman without hair and all that. It's a jarring image for sure, and it certainly drives home just how low she has fallen, and thus her anger at everyone feels a little bit better justified or something along those lines.

I'm not sure how I felt about Julia Roberts. Perhaps it was more about how her character's story was rewritten and less Robert's abilities as an actress. To be fair, it's hard to imagine who else might play the role well enough to be worth the production. Her character had some great sub-plots in the play that didn't make it to the movie. And then there's the final scene that was made exclusively for the movie that just felt like an odd way to end things as a whole. I understand the need to somewhat temper things in order to avoid making the movie feel overly heavy but the final scene was just a little odd. Even had I not watched the stage play, I don't think I would have fully gotten it.

And on a side note, we totally didn't recognize Ewan McGregor when he first appeared in the movie. This is not a bad thing.

The core story that drives August: Osage County is still a powerful one, but there's something about have all these big name stars in one movie that sort of changed the impact of things. It's still a good movie, but it didn't have quite the same emotional impact that the play did, and that's a little sad. Thus the movie rates a good 3.5 emotional outbursts out of a possible 5.

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