The best news is it’s not bad – certainly not the train wreck that I feared when the AUGUST film was first announced, and then again when I heard some of the casting. But much of Letts’ shocking, funny play (he wrote the screenplay also) remains intact.
Those who saw that play, however – especially in its original Steppenwolf production – are likely to find the glass half empty. AUGUST doesn’t benefit from being trimmed down (to two hours from nearly three) and “opened up,” as films almost always do with interior plays. It should feel like we’ve spent a long, combative time inside the Weston family’s creepy house. The movie lets in light and air in a way it shouldn’t, though only in one scene (where Meryl Streep as Violet, the matriarch, runs through a field dotted with bales of hay) do things go completely off the rails. On stage, it was thrilling to see the family come to blows in a dinner party scene where nearly a dozen people are talking at once. In a movie, it’s altogether more ordinary.
The sparring mother and daughter (Violet and Barbara) are the heart of AUGUST, and the movie gets it half right. Meryl Streep has, of course, made a career out of virtually reinventing herself in every role, but it’s no less astonishing because it’s familiar, and though she’s oddly cast as Violet, she brings to it fierce intelligence and (no surprise) bravura technique. (I’m guessing audiences will be especially taken with Streep if they didn’t see the original Violet, Deanna Dunagan, who gave an unforgettable, highly idiosyncratic performance.)
Julia Roberts doesn’t come close to meeting Streep halfway – her idea of dramatic acting is to be drab and enervated, and it’s all so small scale that even the sure-fire laugh lines don’t land. But again in the plus column, there’s good work by Chris Cooper, Margo Martindale and especially Sam Shepard, who is spellbinding without seeming to raise his voice above a whisper. (AUGUST doesn’t get any better than the first ten minutes, which belong to Shepard.) I also liked Juliette Lewis, whose frenetic style works well here. Some oddball casting choices pay off (Benedict Cumberbatch), some don’t (Ewan McGregor – between his scenes, I kept forgetting he was in it).
But ultimately, it’s often impossible to forget (with the women, especially) that you’re watching movie stars. Julianne Nicholson gives a sweet performance as Ivy, the sad-sack daughter, but you can’t not notice that she’s great-looking: a decent haircut and a swipe of lipstick, and she could be modeling. No amount of pouting and harsh light can disguise Julia Robert’s $40,000,000 bone structure.
Still, I’d recommend it – cautiously, to those who loved the play; strongly, to those who didn’t see it.