August: Osage County (2013), Ad-Lib in the Literal Sense

Tolstoy writes at the beginning of Anna Karenina this famous line: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

That just explains why we see so many more movies about dysfunctional families than happy ones, because there are just too many of such stories to tell and countless ways to tell them.

August Osage County

Tracy Letts’s play August: Osage County was the 2008 Pulitzer Prize winner for drama. The stage production was well received as a hilarious satire and biting commentary of the contemporary, declining family. I know, ironic that we find humour in something that we ought to lament. However, the most accessible mode to communicate is probably by means of drama, satire, humor and entertainment.

The movie version however evokes very different reactions. Critic reviews are mixed. I’ve read some unreserved and harsh criticisms. One thing I find though, many of the critics admit to not having seen the stage performance. Well, I haven’t either. But I’ve at least done my due diligence, also to guard myself from A-list stars influencing my interpretation, I read the play before I went to see the movie.

First the reading experience. I’d thoroughly enjoyed it. The long quote like an epigraph at the beginning of the play prepares me for the content following. It describes parent/ child relationships, from All The King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren. Let me just quote the last lines:

And the good old family reunion, with picnic dinner under the maples, is very much like diving into the octopus tank at the aquarium.

Three Weston daughters, Barbara, Ivy and Karen reunite in their childhood house outside Pawhuska, Oklahoma, in a family crisis. Their father Beverly had been missing, later found drowned, an apparent suicide. Beverly was a one-time award winning poet who in later life drenched his misery in alcohol. The matriarch is the foul-mouthed Violet Weston, a destructive roadside bomb that explodes upon the slightest human contact. What makes her even more bitter is what could well be her nemesis, mouth cancer. She is often high on prescription drugs, while she prides herself that nothing slips by her without her noticing. She’s not demeaning, just ‘truth-telling’.

There are dark secrets in that old house unknown to the daughters, exposed during this present crisis. The twists and turns in the plot only accentuate the decayed skeleton of a family. But Letts’s lines are thought-provoking, albeit well mashed-up with curses and abrasive language. But there are LOL dialogues and humorous moments, and overall, an entertaining, well crafted play. It starts off with this line: “Life is very long… T. S. Eliot”, and before the final Blackout it finishes with: “This is the way the world ends, this is the way the world ends, this is the way the world ends…” Hollow men in their precarious condition.

Intelligent lines, a far-fetched character, but not impossible situations, and yes, some nasty verbal and literal combats. I must say, having read the play helps me appreciate the movie more, despite its faults.

So, here we go round the prickly pear…

Streep and Roberts in August Osage County


If you haven’t read the play or seen the stage production, you just might be in for some rude awakening. Director John Wells is known more for his TV series than his one full length feature The Company Men (2010). I’m glad though Tracy Letts writes the screenplay himself. He keeps many of the lines intact, and adds some scenes for cinematic purposes.

While exuding fearful authority to everyone who crosses her path, Meryle Streep is fearless in adopting a vocabulary of expletives and curses playing Violet Weston. Her daughter Barabara (Julia Roberts) is more restrained and obviously exasperated to find herself slipping into similar form in relating to her recently divorced husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) and teenaged daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin).

Ivy lives close to Violet but no more as she has her exit plan. However, we know what best-laid plans often do. Youngest sister Karen changes men like wardrobes; oblivious (or maybe not) to her, her present fiancé Steve (Dermot Mulroney) looks like another disappointment. Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale) is a supportive sister to Violet, but she too has to nurse her own unspeakable past. Her husband Charlie (Chris Cooper) is probably of the soundest mind in this family. He has spoken a few admirable lines as he confronts his wife’s maltreatment of her own son, Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch). But of course, Mattie fae has her own Gordian knot to deal with.

The person that silently offers practical help whenever there are crashes and especially so in the last scene is the Indian maid hired by Beverly a few days before he disappears. Johnna (Misty Upham) cooks, serves, observes, and raises moral protest with a shovel. She is the one at the end of Letts’s play softly reciting T. S. Eliot’s lines, “This is the way the world ends…” while Violet utters: “and then you’re gone, and then you’re gone, and then you’re gone…” In the movie we hear Clapton’s ‘Lay Down Sally’: “But won’t you make yourself at home and stay with me? Don’t you ever leave…” Less literary and more obvious.

The key to enjoying the movie is to find entertainment in its dark comedy, taking misbehaviour and maltreatments as satire, overly dramatic scenes as farce, exaggerated gestures and facial expressions as comedic spasms. But of course, there are scenes that are serious, thus sending the mixed messages of an incongruent  genre. For entertainment purposes here, I think it is fine to feel poignancy through the chaos.  

Yet the movie has its faults, and it’s not hard to pick out. Inconsistency in blocking of characters is an example. One obvious scene is when Bill is driving Barbara to identify her father’s body. We see Barbara sit in the back seat with daughter Jean, delivering her ‘die after me ” plea. As the car stops, the camera points to the front of the car and we see Barbara (or her stand-in) steps out from the front passenger seat.

But overall, as a play turned movie, it is less claustrophobic than the one-room setting of Carnage (2011). And the entertainment value can be found in the acting of most of the characters, in particular, Streep and Roberts. If there are faults, they are not in over-acting. Roberts’s restrained performance is a good counter-balance to Streep’s overbearing character. In the hands of a more experienced director, we may see better-handled scenes with more control and consistency. Watching the movie, I have the feeling that Wells is following Letts’s written description in the literal sense. Why, in the play, the floor wrestling between Violet and Barbara is written with these words: “ad-lib“.

~ ~ ~ Ripples


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If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Creator of Ripple Effects, bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

18 thoughts on “August: Osage County (2013), Ad-Lib in the Literal Sense”

  1. Oh…continuity stuff bothers the heck out of me. This does look like an very interesting film. I adore dysfunction and love all the cringe worthy moments. As long as they are not happening to me!

    I love that you read the play first and I was not aware that the playwright had a hand in the screenplay as well.


    1. Ti,

      Interesting view, and I must say I share with you. Watching movies on dysfunctional families can be entertaining ‘as long as they are not happening to me.” You see, this is exactly it. Movies are mirrors of our society. We can gain by either seeing what it’s like from a detached distance, or, identifying and recognizing certain parts/characters to know that we’re not alone in our predicament.


  2. I’m leaning toward giving this one a pass. I hate watching arguing and people beating up on each other. It makes me really uncomfortable. But the Streep-Roberts combination is certainly tempting. I’m not sure… I’ll have to review this one again.


  3. I’m looking forward to seeing this one sometime. I am not a fan of Julia Roberts but the clips I’ve seen from this looked great. And Streep, I do like her very much.


  4. I really enjoyed reading this play the first few times around. I haven’t watched the movie yet so I’m glad that I found your review. I’m still going to see it while keeping your thoughts in mind.


    1. Vasilly,

      Welcome! I’m glad you’ve enjoyed reading the play… yes, I really liked it, and glad that I read it before seeing the movie. Hope you’ll have a chance to see it soon. Do come back to share with us your thoughts after that. 😉


  5. I’d heard the acting by Streep and Roberts was very good indeed. I think I would have to read the play first to get an idea whether I’d watch it or not. I can’t think when I last read a play – years ago! Thank you for the detailed and astute review, Arti.


    1. Litlove,

      Depends who you heard it from, because critics’ views are mixed, either love it or hate it. But I think you’d enjoy reading the play. Hope you’ll come back and share your view after. 😉


  6. This week we saw 5 movies and ¼ – more than we saw whole last year and maybe we won’t see that many until next year. We saw Philomena, Inside Llewyn Davis, American Hustler, Saving Mr. Banks, August: Osage County and about ½ hour of the Woolf of Wall Street – we left that one because I just got tired of all the drug talks. We did see all these movies on the same day…. two days ago.

    I enjoyed Osage County but thought that Meryl Streep was over acting a bit, maybe because this was a play originally. She reminded me of Elizabeth Taylor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? I loved the scenery of Oklahoma – I have never been there but it did look large, and big and bleak, but beautiful in its own way. I could not get into the movie really – I felt like I was seeing Meryl and Julia “acting” and doing quite well in their roles, but they were roles. The two actors who seemed to me the most natural were the couple – Violet’s sister, the actress Margo Martindale and mostly her husband in the film, Chris Cooper. He was very effective and had great lines and was convincing, in my opinion. But I am pleased I saw all these films.


    1. VB,

      I can’t imagine watching all those movies in one day. How could you even schedule them all in? You must have been exhausted, physically and mentally. I can see why you’d to walk out of Wolf of Wall Street. I haven’t seen that one, and you know what, I don’t think I will. So you’re all caught up with the Oscar noms now. 😉

      Your view of August: Osage County represents some critics’ major criticism, that Meryl Streep is overacting. You know, I just might feel that way too if I hadn’t read the play first. I think Streep has portrayed vividly what Violet Weston is depicted in the script of the play. I haven’t seen the actual stage production, and have not seen Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf in full (just excerpts of it) so I didn’t mention it on my post. But you’re right, Meryle Streep just might be evoking the image of Elizabeth Taylor from that movie. And I think it’s ok that a movie shows itself as an alter ego of a play. BTW, did you catch any of the bloopers? I found a few, continuity problems and inconsistency of camera angles, or incompatible facial expressions, seems like the characters aren’t reacting to the same thing at the dinner table. Anyway, I still feel it’s quite entertaining.

      You’re welcome to share your thoughts on my review of Inside Llewyn Davis. Also, if you have not watched Nebraska, do go see it.


  7. Well, it seems as though I’m the outlier here. I’ve seen the film twice now, without reading either the play or the screenplay, and I think it was one of the best I’ve seen in some years.

    Things that obviously bother critics – like the blocking you mention – passed me by entirely. And I didn’t think it was a dark film at all – at least not in the end. The dynamic that fascinated me most is the way in which the film’s plot was just the reverse of what we see in most “dysfunctional family” films. Instead of a family tying itself up in a Gordian knot of dysfunction, the film shows a family disentangling itself, bit by bit. It starts with Beverly hiring Johnna and giving her his book, and ends with Barbara, the last to depart, heading down the road, loose ends dangling but free.

    Perhaps the reason I loved it so much is because, in the end, the underlying issue is boundaries – one I’ve had to deal with my whole life, particularly in relationship to my mother. And the corrosive effect of secrets in famlies, another obvious theme, is one I’ve dealt with again and again, both professionally and with friends.

    I hate films that use coarse language – and yet it didn’t bother me here. I don’t like films that depend on gratuitous violence, and I didn’t see any here. The fight between mother and daughter was surprising – perhaps even a bit shocking – but it was a perfect representation of the struggle going on within both woman, albeit externalized.

    Yes, indeed. I loved this film. I’ll see it again.


    1. Linda,

      Interesting… so you see all the daughters leaving for good as a positive untying of the Gordian knot. Yes, it’s a release, isn’t it? to be rid of the strong grasp of a malevolent and authoritative, obnoxious matriarch. It is sad too that a daughter who had wanted to ‘resolve’ things, at least in caring for her mother with whatever filial obligations she still upholds, but ultimately she too has to let go. The ‘motel revelation’ is just too much to bear I suppose. But kind of unfortunate that the movie could have been better handled and shot if it were in the hands of a more skillful and exp. director. Just my thoughts. Anyway, I’m glad you’d enjoyed it. I watched it twice too… 😉


      1. I forgot something else that really struck me. When the mother was wearing her wig, she was at her meanest. Every time that wig came off, her vulnerability showed through. And in the last scene with Johnna, the wig was off. That’s when I felt that things were going to be good for her, too. At last she had someone she could allow to see her, and be with her, just as she was – and there wasn’t any need for struggle.

        Or so it seemed. 😉


        1. Yes, you’re absolutely right about the wig. Excellent point, Linda! Now come to think of it, I don’t think they suggest a wig in the script of the play, and at the end, Johnna is rocking her on the stairwell, another sign of vulnerability. Yes, I guess things just might be best for her after all. But too sad for Ivy and Charles, or everyone of the daughters I think. Barbara probably can figure out how to deal with her Gordian knot, but Karen… she might not even be aware of a knot. LOL!


  8. Want to see this movie…but alas my schedule is so hectic I will have to wait until it hits DVD 😦
    Thanks for the review. I will read the play before I see it. I think that will be an interesting prospective! 🙂


    1. Courtney,

      Yes, I think that would be a different but enjoyable experience. Thanks for stopping by the pond and throwing in your two pebbles. 😉


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