Bad company

Stage hit 'August: Osage County' loses potency on the big screen
Smotherin' mothers: Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep in August: Osage County

FILM Considering the relative infrequency of theater-to-film translations today, it's a bit of a surprise that Tracy Letts had two movies made from his plays before he even got to Broadway. Bug and Killer Joe proved a snug fit for director William Friedkin (in 2006 and 2011, respectively), who well past age 70 experienced something of a career resurgence from them. Those modern Grand Guignols got around, but were too outré for the kind of mainstream success accorded 2007's August: Osage County, which won the Pulitzer, ran 18 months on Broadway (an eternity for a non-musical at present), and toured the nation.

As a result, August was destined — perhaps doomed — to be a big movie, the kind that shoehorns a distracting array of stars into an ensemble piece, playing jes' plain folk. On stage, this Long Day's Journey Into Fuck All Y'All was a juicy-steak drama meal, chockablock with family dysfunction, colorful cussin', shocking revelations, and ghoulish as well as broad humor. It was like a vintage Sam Shepard text crossed with an old-school three-act "well-made play." It was also three and a half hours long.

To his credit, Letts' own screenplay adaptation clocks in at almost exactly two hours, a considerable reduction that nonetheless doesn't feel gutted. Whether it feels like a movie, though, is another question. What seemed bracingly rude as well as somewhat traditional under the proscenium lights just looks like a lot of reheated Country Gothic hash, and the possibility of profundity you might've been willing to consider before is now completely off the menu. If you haven't seen August before (or even if you have), there may be sufficient fun watching stellar actors chew the scenery with varying degrees of panache. But the play exposes itself in a medium it might have been most suitable for 50 years before it was written. (Not that the censors would have allowed it then.)

Gorgon matriarch Violet Weston (Meryl Streep, who else) is dying of cancer, albeit not fast enough — she's still quite capable of driving long-suffering, shot-pounding spouse Beverly (Shepard) to distraction, and all other "loved ones" to a safe geographic distance away. Nonetheless, when Bev simply exits their rambling rural Oklahoma home with no apparent intention of returning, the scattered troops are called in for reinforcement.

Pissed-off prodigal daughter Barbara (Julia Roberts) returns in the company of a husband (Ewan McGregor) and teenage daughter (Abigail Breslin) she's well on her way to alienating just like mommy did. Middle child Karen (Juliette Lewis) is a man-crazy ninny entering another bad marriage, this one to a Master of the Universe, Florida-style (Dermot Mulroney). Family doormat Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), the third sister, stuck around to masochistically endure Violet's ingratitude and caustic pity but might be plotting her escape at last. Last and least, there's Auntie Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale), a viperous chatterbox whose husband (Chris Cooper) self-medicates with beer and TV, while their son (Benedict Cumberbatch) is treated like an even bigger loser than he is.

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