Playwright Tracy Letts may have a shelf full of Tonys and a Pulitzer Prize, but that’s no reason to pretend he’s all respectable now.

This rotgut poet of the Plains kicked off his stage career with Killer Joe, an appallingly funny white-trash travesty that was adapted a couple of years back by William Friedkin into a monstrous little microbudget marvel. A key text in the recent Matthew McConaughey renaissance, Killer Joe made sure audiences would never eat fried chicken the same way again. Indeed, Letts and the Exorcist director share simpatico sensibilities, as their previous, too-little-seen 2006 collaboration, Bug, exhibited astonishing formal discipline in the service of auditorium-clearing shocks. (It’s also the movie that unleashed Michael Shannon upon an unsuspecting world).

Sigh. What I wouldn’t give to see a bare-bones Friedkin adaptation of August: Osage County. Letts’ most-honored magnum opus is a cracker Eugene O’Neill riff hopped up on prescription meds and whiskey. It crams 10 or so members of the wildly dysfunctional Weston family into a sweltering, tiny space for all sorts of simultaneous outré revelations and profane recriminations. This literal hothouse ran for more than three hours every night on Broadway to both acclaim and exhaustion.

Awards have a way of ruining everything, and thus a severely truncated, flattened and defanged August: Osage County is now being presented to movie audiences with an all-star cast and a veneer of “prestige” as a collection of Academy-friendly “For Your Consideration” meltdown clips. Every ill-considered editing choice here bears the sticky fingerprints of statuette-grubbing producer Harvey Weinstein, attempting to tame this rough material for mass consumption by Oscar voters.

We begin with alcoholic has-been poet Beverly Weston (the delightful Sam Shepard) delivering a gorgeously discursive monologue about T.S. Eliot that segues into a description of his own drug-addled harridan wife. Beverly abruptly then goes and drowns himself just to get away from the bitch, a choice that becomes quite enviable once we finally meet her.

Violet Weston is a tyrannical gorgon in a chintzy wig and oversized sunglasses, slurring her words and picking fights with anybody unlucky enough to cross her path. She’s played by Meryl Streep in one of the most grotesquely miscalculated drag-show performances I’ve ever seen. (Mommie Dearest’s Faye Dunaway is no doubt breathing a sigh of relief right now.) Streep is so big and so bad, you’ll wonder why they didn’t just cast Melissa Leo instead.

The Weston daughters (Julia Roberts, Juliette Lewis and Julianne Nicholson—that’s a lot of Julies) all descend with their extended broods for a doomed family funeral punctuated by blistering torrents of verbal abuse. What played as a free-for-all cacophony upon the stage is flattened out by John Wells’ pedestrian direction. He tries to open up the play and give it room to breathe—a terrible choice.

Wells had a great run on television, shepherding ER and The West Wing through many years of rocky transitions. But his first feature, The Company Men, sanctified downsized one-percenters until Ben Affleck having to sell his Porsche was treated like one of the stations of the cross. Wells really has no idea what he’s doing with August: Osage County, shooting in widescreen but still stubbornly sticking to close-ups and ignoring the crucial interplay amongst the ensemble. His camera is always in the wrong place.

Almost everyone not named Meryl Streep is pretty terrific in this picture (the only other exception being Benedict Cumberbatch, hilariously miscast as a hapless hayseed). But that hour and change shorn from Letts’ original script leaves most of these performers scrambling to define their characters without the writer’s ammunition. Most of this movie feels like it was left on the cutting room floor.

Yet Julia Roberts is fantastic. As the eldest Weston sister, Barbara, she’s tougher than nails and falling apart. Roberts doesn’t seem much interested in movies these days, and her best recent roles, like in Closer and Duplicity, have found her playing into a brittle, flagrantly unlikable part of her personality that’s a far cry from her decades-long run as America’s sweetheart. Turns out Pretty Woman can wield the F-word like a dagger, and I really enjoy that.

August: Osage County is, at heart, a horror story about Roberts realizing that she’s already turned into her awful mother. But unlike the play, the movie tacks on a wordless, ghastly redemption scene that looks like a Jeep commercial. Complete with an awful Kings of Leon song, it’s a wretched betrayal of the rest of the story, reassuring us that everything is now somehow going to be OK. (Puke.)

I’m not sure why anybody would take on this kind of material and then not see it all the way through. But then as Barbara says: “Good thing we can’t tell the future. We’d never get out of bed.”


August: Osage County

Starring Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Juliette Lewis, Julianne Nicholson, and Chris Cooper. Screenplay by Tracy Letts. Directed by John Wells. At Boston Common, Fenway and in the suburbs.

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