There are many levels of incestuousness in John Wells' August: Osage County. Based on the play by Tracy Letts (who also adpated the screenplay), the film is Wells' second foray into directing for features. Previously, Wells' primary experience was as a TV producer, most notably for ER, which brings us to point one of incestuousness: The collaboration with George Clooney, who also serves as a producer on the film. Further, Julia Roberts and Dermot Mulroney appeared together in My Best Friend's Wedding, Chris Cooper and Meryl Streep appeared together in Adaptation and Julia Roberts and Sam Shepard appeared together in The Pelican Brief. Thus, it seems that there was a bit of casting genius afoot on the parts of Kerry Barden and Paul Schnee.
Like Tennessee Williams before him, Letts' work not only seems to transition seamlessly onto film (albeit without the flagrant omission of homosexuality), but also favors the tragic shown through a darkly comedic lens. The play, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2008, segues quite nicely into a screenplay version, especially with such a cum-inducing ensemble cast. August: Osage County opens ironically with Beverly Weston's (Sam Shepard) recitation of the famed T.S. Eliot quote, "Life is long," as he hires a Native American (a term that comes up derisively several times later in the film) caretaker named Johnna (Misty Upham) for his mouth cancer-ridden wife, Violet (Meryl Streep, who continues to make every other actor look inadequate). The bittersweetness of his decision to use this quote is quickly felt after he goes missing--prompting his daughters to return to Osage County--and is discovered to have drowned himself.
Barbara (Julia Roberts), the oldest daughter, is the one most deeply affected by the loss of her father, for Violet is largely too drug-addled (prescriptiosns are her specialty) to express any real emotion and the other two daughters, Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) and Karen (Juliette Lewis), are clearly the least favored of the children. Her emotional turmoil is heightened by the fact that she brought her husband, Bill (Ewan McGregor), and must mask the obviousness of their separation from her fault-finding mother. Also along for the ride is Barbara's daughter, Jean (Abigail Breslin), who Barbara finds annoyingly precocious. One of the most divergent elements from the play, in fact, is Jean's plotline. One of the main sources of contention in the film is her pot smoking exchange with Steve (Dermot Mulroney), Karen's fiancé. To give you an idea of his personality, his most memorable aphorism is: "I'm white and over 30. I can't get in trouble." In the play, however, this event occurs with Johnna, who Jean develops a rapport with.
Barbara's emotional duress is augmented by the barrenness and desolation of being back in this environment--because essentially the only thing Osage County has going for it is that a portion of Tulsa extends within its jurisdiction. As she drives with her daughter to identify the body of her father, Barbara notes, "Thank god we can't tell the future. We'd never get out of bed." The humorous, yet melancholy manner in which she states this is indicative of the collective state of mind of the Weston family, who has been through too much suffering not to take it all somewhat lightly.
As for Julia Roberts, the actress has more than made up for her last filmic affront, Mirror Mirror. Her acting chops are neck and neck with Meryl's, who might soon be usurped as Roberts approaches what Hollywood deems "the old bag age." Relatedly, Violet's assessment of women during a moment when she's looking at past pictures of herself with Ivy prompts her to note that women only get uglier past a certain age--that the only true beauty is youth. But even if that's the case, Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep defy the norm together through their unignorable presences onscreen. The acting is paired beautifully with Letts' incisive dialogue, which promotes the harmonious coalescing of playwriting and screenwriting.