Adapting a stage story for the screen is no easy task; anyone attempting it must not only uphold the source material's original impact, but attempt to create a cinematic work that can stand alone.
Director John Wells mostly skirts these issues in "August: Osage County," allowing Tracy Letts' Pulitzer-winning dialogue to carry the film with minimal interference from the camera. This method produces rather mixed results.
"August: Osage County" is entrenched in the conventions of dark family dramas before it: the sudden death of family patriarch Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard) reunites the family's many troubled members and reopens old wounds between them all.
The Westons argue separately in cars and then together in the home of Beverly's widow, the cancer-ridden and pill-addled Violet (Meryl Streep). The three Weston children argue over what to do with their mother, and couples argue over the state of their decaying relationships.
Bits of plotting centered on incest and molestation are thrown in for good measure, but the film is essentially a delivery system for a series of angry and explosive confrontations.
While the screen somewhat limits the intimacy and spontaneity of these many arguments, there is still plenty of drama inherent in a dinner table packed with enemies, with one medicated voice at its head constantly on the brink of divulging their every secret. At the film's best, these scenes will have viewers holding their breath and waiting for the violent catharsis that is sure to follow.
There is plenty of good, stagey dialogue in "August: Osage County" for one to chew on, but dialogue is only as good as the actors who deliver it. It is here that the film shines.
Streep is as reliable as ever, suggesting the beginnings of madness in a woman who can feel life slipping through her fingers.
Julia Roberts also impresses as oldest daughter Barbara, ably supported by sisters Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) and Karen (Juliette Lewis). Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Margo Martindale and Benedict Cumberbatch round out this impressive cast, and each of them get a moment to shine before fading into the background.
While the intensity of every spoken line in the film can occasionally veer into melodrama, the actors often manage to indicate the vitriol of Letts' screenplay without going too over-the-top.
Still, "August: Osage County" never amounts to anything more than a collection of good moments scattered among comparatively slack padding.
The film lacks a strong enough through-line to tie together these moments, making the whole affair feel rather inconsequential as the credits roll.
Perhaps, with greater revision, Letts' play could have proved more compelling on-screen, but this attempt has produced a film too intense to ignore but too restrained to truly relish.