Tracy Letts, author of the recent stage play August, Orange County, has turned out a decent screenplay version of the story. Then John Wells, previously known primarily as a producer of t.v. series, has directed a good cast in an interesting version of that script.
The story is simple enough. Poet, retired academic, and alcoholic Beverly Weston (played in his only scene, the curtain raiser, by Sam Shepard) has killed himself at a lake near his rural home not far from little Pawhuska Oklahoma (which is the capital of the Osage Nation). His relations meet for the funeral service. There are some family pyrotechnics.
Beverly’s wife Violet (Meryl Streep) has cancer and is taking lots of pills. This gives her an excuse for needling most everybody else in the cast, including her three daughters, Barbara, Ivy, and Karen. Barbara (Julia Roberts), who is in some sense as hard as her mother, gets grief because she is separated from her husband, Bill (Ewan McGregor).
Florida real estate agent Karen (Juliet Lewis) is still trying to get married, this time to a flash named Steve (Dermot Mulroney). Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) has stayed in Oklahoma but has not found love until she herself had cancer, and then she fell for the man she thinks is her cousin, the ineffectual Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch).
Little Charles is despised by his mother, Aunt Mattie Fae (Margo Martendale), and encouraged by his dad (Chris Cooper).
As Violet picks at the family, Barbara begins to wonder about the timeline of events the day her father died. Did her mother, reading his note, wait to empty the safety deposit box before she called the sheriff?
And there are other developments. The cook catches Steve smoking dope with Barbara’s fourteen-year-old daughter Jean (Abagail Breslin) and intervenes with a shovel to stave off possible sexual misconduct. Mattie Fae announces a surprising reason for scotching the romance between her son and Ivy.
The story is inconclusive when compared to Tennessee Williams’s Glass Menagerie and Streetcar Named Desire, Letts’s most obvious models. But it exists mostly to give actresses good parts, and Streep and Roberts are all over their chances here. The movie may be more of an opportunity for performers than an entertainment for viewers.
One of the problems with the production was the script’s apparent confusion over the habits of members of the Greatest Generation and those of the Boomers. Violet says she is a Boomer and curses in a way small-town Oklahoma middle-class women a generation back would not have.
But she has a daughter who, in 2014, is in her fifties. And the family photos show that she cannot have been born after the Second World War.
Does that seem like a quibble? One worries about some details with obvious bearing on character psychology when one is presented with a movie that is only about the personalities of its people. So I wondered about the setting, too. The script insists that the Plains are unlike the Midwest in being a sort of spiritual state, and nature cutaways ornament passages between scenes.
But heck, besides the characters having what would be in Pawhuska a really, really old wrangle about whether or not to call the cook an “Indian,” what is there of this movie that has anything Oklahoma- or Great Plains-specific about it? Even the choice of August seems questionable. August means having majestic dignity. Oh, it also means hot. But September is hot in Pawhuska, too. So’s July.
In part because the viewer may be distracted by detail work like this, the movie has to succeed on the basis of on-screen performances. Streep has an easy character that she handles with energy. Roberts is more subtle. One wonders if her Barbara, the point of view character for most of the story, seems enough like her mother.
Generally speaking, though, the acting will keep viewers watching this fairly dramatic film. And the members of the cast deserve great credit for their fine performances.