Monday, 29 December 2014

August: Osage County (2014) - Movie Review

On the surface, it seems that adapting a work of theatre into a movie would be a lot easier than adapting from a different work like a book or a video game, and to a degree it is. But they are still two different media, however similar they may be, and in order to do it right it can’t just be a simple copy-and-paste job.  For a good example of stage to screen adaptation done right, look at 11 Things I Hate About You, a loose adaptation of Shakespeare’s Taming Of The Shrew: It took what is, in the modern age, the most difficult Shakespeare work to portray due its rather screwed-up gender politics and essentially left only the framework and changed the rest in order to make it work, and for the most part it did. A bad example of this? … Let’s get into today’s film: This is August: Osage County.

The plot: After the disappearance of Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard), his estranged family reunite at his house in the titular Osage County in Colorado. As secrets and underlying tensions are revealed, numerous fights break out amongst them, but maybe there is a chance that they can reconcile their differences and at least find some togetherness in the wake of this event.

This is a great ensemble cast to have in a single film: Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Juliette Lewis, Benedict Cumberbatch, Abigail Breslin; it reads like a film buff’s wet dream, and it all leads into great performances from our actors… sort of, and it is here that we get to the ugly side of adaptation. Their performances would great if this was a traditional theatre performance of the story, where such things like the ability to see more of the actors’ faces and read their emotions don’t exist. Instead, what we get here is a lot of overacting and melodrama that strains on whatever emotional impact the story could have had under different circumstances. What’s more, the premise is almost beat-for-beat the same as This Is Where I Leave You, and for as many issues as I had with that film, I can at least see that they were acting within the parameters of a film and were able to get some decent emotion out of the proceedings at times. I’m not saying that their acting is terrible, mind you: Streep exhibits a lot of woozy authority as Violet, Beverly’s wife and the matriarch of the family, a role that would’ve been played by Faye Dunaway were this made 30 years ago given how boisterous she gets at times.

Of course, as was the case with Dunaway in Mommie Dearest, if the script and characters fitted with that kind of melodrama then their performances could have worked. Unfortunately, what we do get is a host of characters are each their special brand of unlikeable. *SPOILERS* Throughout the film, certain characters end up confessing to adultery, incest and even one gets caught in the midst of possible paedophilia. Now, as bad as this all sounds, it might have worked were it framed in the right way; not every fictional character has to be moral, as fiction would be decidedly boring if they were. However, how they are framed in this film is that not only do they feel justified in what they are doing, but that the audience should feel pity for them because of it.

To put in the simplest possible terms why this fails on all accounts, here’s the play-by-play on the potential paedophilia scene: Jean (Abigail Breslin), the daughter of Barbara (Julia Roberts), is smoking weed with the fiancée of Karen (Juliette Lewis), one of Barbara’s sisters. He has his shirt open, it seems like they’re getting close and Jean is only 14 years old. Then Johnna, Violet’s caregiver, brains the fiancée with a shovel after she sees them together (one of the few good parts of the entire film) then Karen takes him inside. When the fiancée is taken inside, although it is buried a bit under the rest of the audio, you can hear him say “She told me she was 15!” We’ll ignore the fact that this is an incredibly stupid thing to say, and instead focus on when Barbara confronts Karen inside. She then proceeds to say that her fiancée isn’t entirely to blame for whatever may have happened and that Jean must have had a part in it too.

This film has been billed on more than a few sites as being a ‘black comedy’, same as the previously reviewed Horrible Bosses 2, but at least there it had actual jokes written into the script. Not all of them worked, and some of them definitely went too far, but at least it framed itself as a comedy with punchlines in it. Here, all we have to go on is morally vile and rather stupid people doing horrible things to one another and doing their best to justify it by pushing the blame onto others; either I’m missing the joke or my complaints about adaptation failure are pointless since the source material was absolute garbage to begin with. What makes matter worse is that, whenever this film tries to have more emotional moments and make us care about the main characters, it almost wants us to forget how putrid these people are and feel sorry for them because of how dysfunctional their lives are. Sorry, but no dice.

All in all, this is a complete disaster. The acting is misplaced and doesn’t work within the film’s context of being a film, the writing paints every character as being nasty to everyone around them and in no way deserving of sympathy and the adaptation, even coming from someone who isn’t familiar with the original work, outright fails out of not seeming to realize the different requirements of screen and stage.

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