Special to The Chronicle
Special to The Chronicle

Dir. John Wells
Jean Doumanian Productions

3/5 stars

It’s no surprise that “August: Osage County” was on everyone’s Oscar predictions lists since the film stems from the Pulitzer Prize- and multiple Tony Award-winning play of the same name by Tony Letts. But even with a host of nominations and wins for “August: Osage County” and its all-star cast (Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts and Benedict Cumberbatch, to name a few) the film falls slightly short of its equally critically-acclaimed opponents.

Both the strengths and weaknesses of the film result from the translation of stage to screen. The stage production limits the space in which the characters interact, imitating the same claustrophobia that the reluctantly reconverging Weston family experiences. The film mimics this with static shots of the dark house and frequent close-ups during uncomfortable or precarious interactions. In addition, the film incorporates panoramas of the flat, sometimes barren landscape of northern Oklahoma. The film complements isolation with that claustrophobia, and when these shots are interspersed between climatic moments of the film and combined with melancholy music, they become an incredibly artful replacement for the curtain falling between each act.

Unfortunately, it is this vivid specificity of setting that also hinders the film. Wells makes a choice to trade universality of an amorphous place for the ability to project motifs with symbolic imagery. But it is not an equal trade. The specific highlighting of Oklahoma via dialogue and landscape brings in a uniqueness to the story and its cast. It positions the characters in an unfamiliar (to most) environment. This placement of already unlikeable characters in an unrelatable environment makes it even more difficult to empathize and harder to notice commonalities expressed by the themes of familial responsibility and definition.

The other fault of the film is its attempt to keep the integrity of the story of a three and a half hour play within an acceptable movie length. While the cinematography does an interesting and compelling job of reflecting the story’s roots as a play, it condenses instead of selectively removing some plot. Attempts to maintain the original intent of the play result in rushed stories that deserve more fleshing out (like the reactions and repercussions of a sexual assault) and the glossing over of complex growth and deterioration of the family.

However, in most aspects, Wells has done a superb job of translating believable albeit unlikeable characters from stage to screen. The actors, especially Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts, do a phenomenal job portraying the darkly comedic and tragic sides of the Weston family. This is even more impressive since the characters are outside the actors' conventional and expected roles, yet they deliver an interesting portrayal of a deteriorating family. One of the most well-acted and surprising scenes is the opening, in which Streep enters as an elderly, drug-addicted cancer patient spiraling out of control and exhibiting need for severe help. Streep, whose fame stems from playing strong independent women, acts the frail dependent quite well.

Overall, even with the faults of translation from stage to screen, the movie is an outstandingly real and emotionally draining illustration of what defines the relationship and obligation between family members.