When it comes to the new star-studded family drama "August: Osage County," it seems film critics might be content to crib from Hamlet: The play's the thing. For many reviewers, the John Wells-directed adaptation of Tracy Letts' Tony- and Pulitzer-winning stage production doesn't work as well on the screen, instead coming off as, well, overly theatrical.
In a withering review for The Times, Kenneth Turan writes, "I have to confess that (a) I never saw this Pulitzer Prize-winning vehicle by Tracy Letts when it was on stage and (b) nothing about this film version makes me regret that choice. Despite a pedigree that includes five Tonys in addition to that Pulitzer and a cast of gifted actors that is a full dozen deep, 'August: Osage County' does nothing but disappoint, with all the talent involved simply underlining how uninvolving this material is."
Each of the film's dozen actors — including Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Chris Cooper, Ewan McGregor and Benedict Cumberbatch — "has his or her moment," Turan says, "but these virtuoso performances do not move us. Despite the story's melodramatic contrivances the creation of characters we actually care about is beyond this film's capabilities."
The New York Times' A.O. Scott says the setup is a familiar one: "Tears are shed, lessons learned, award nominations eagerly solicited." Ultimately, the story of the Weston clan "is secondary to the spectacle the actors make of themselves." Another way to think of the film, he says, "is as a thespian cage match. Within a circumscribed space, a bunch of unquestionably talented performers is assembled with no instructions other than to top one another. One twitchy confession must be excelled by another. The same with smoldering, sarcastic speeches, explosions of tears, wistful jags of nostalgia and imperious gazes of disgust."
Claudia Puig of USA Today concedes that the film "requires a strong stomach and the ability to withstand two hours of bickering and screaming matches." But, she adds, "the dialogue is so sharply written and the sniping so deftly performed that it can be entertaining, though challenging to endure." Roberts in particular delivers her "most emotionally mature and layered work, the best performance of her career."
Also in the slightly-more-kind department, Jocelyn Noveck of the Associated Press writes that "August" "feels less naturally suited to film, though if you haven't seen the play, you might not notice. And a brief final scene feels tacked on for cinematic purposes. But these are not fatal flaws."
One of the film's strengths is Streep, she says, who plays the Weston family's sharp-tongued matriarch and "holds absolutely nothing back in a performance that could be called showy — except that's it's so compelling, and also deeply faithful to the script." Also earning kudos are Cooper, Nicholson and Margo Martindale.
The Village Voice's Stephanie Zacharek, on the other hand, feels that there's "just too much Streep. But all is not lost. Some of her fellow actors are resourceful enough to reconstruct themselves after being obliterated." Sam Shepard is "wonderfully grizzled," Misty Upham is "blessedly understated," and Roberts "comes off as the most relaxed performer here, the one who keeps pulling the story back into the territory of movies."
In all, Zacharek writes, "For a film version of a play, always a tricky proposition, 'August: Osage County' is effective enough."