When Tracy Letts's Pulitzer-winning play August: Osage County was on Broadway, the entire play was set in a house—a sprawling house with an open front, three floors, a big porch, and many bedrooms—that fills the stage. Everything happens in that house, and the result? Claustrophobia, which mirrors the characters' own suffocation. They're boxed in by their family's secrets, and history, and vituperation.
John Wells's film adaptation (with a screenplay by Letts) trades about half that suffocation for the wide-open plains of Oklahoma, golden and lovely in the sunset. But all the familial smothering is still there. The Weston family isn't what you'd call tight-knit, but when the family patriarch disappears, the family—three daughters; an aunt, uncle, and cousin; and an assortment of offspring and significant others—comes together at the family home on the Oklahoma plains. With them they bring all their baggage, from old wounds and bitterness to addictions and secrets. The pressure cooker gets switched on.
This setup is as old as the plains themselves, with variations written by playwrights as eminent as Chekhov and Shakespeare. Letts's play won a Pulitzer and a Tony largely because it's a compelling, heartbreaking portrayal of life in an often-overlooked part of America—and also a very true play about the ways that many families love one another, but can't stop hurting one another, either.
(Trivia: Letts is on Homeland Season 3, and won a Tony for his acting in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf; he also wrote and adapted Bug.)
The film cast of August: Osage County is almost too obviously stacked with stars: Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan MacGregor, Sam Shepard, Abigail Breslin, Margot Martindale, Chris Cooper, Julianne Moore, Juliette Lewis, Misty Upham, Dermot Mulroney, and Benedict Cumberbatch (whose sweet loser is a nice contrast to all the villains and dragons he's been playing lately).
As many have noted, this cast is acting their socks off—Streep especially, as the drug-ravaged, razor-tongued mother with mouth cancer. You can't help but think of Gloria Swanson playing Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard; both are theatrical with a capital T, but it's okay, because the women they're playing have been so loudly dramatic for so long that they're reduced to being larger-than-life in order to get anyone to pay attention to them.
So if you're looking to study some of our greatest talents working at the height of their game, here's your movie. But it's not one I'd want to watch again.
Part of this is because this film struggles with the same problem many stage-to-screen adaptations have—the adaptation problem. Theater is a marvel to me; even the greatest, most epic theatrical productions still are space-bound, with audience members who can't get up close to see subtle reactions, and with sets that must be physically carried around. Playwrights have to figure out how to get all that drama and character development to work in a constricted space, and stage actors must pull off their performances night after night.