You know the beats: Late-night confessions, drunken hijinks, disastrous dinners, secrets (infidelity, etc.) spilling out everywhere like loose change from moth-eaten trousers. Even at its much greater stage length, August was overstuffed, though what seemed excessive in a mostly good way then now simply plays as a pileup of clichés and contrivances enlivened by some good lines and snappy performances. Of course the dialogue sounds ornately "theatrical" in this more naturalistic presentation. But director John Wells, a veteran TV writer-producer whose prior feature was 2010's decent corporate-downsizing drama The Company Men, doesn't make anything seem very natural. (If Nebraska lives and breathes its locations, this movie might as well have been shot on a studio back lot for all the authenticity earned.)
Nor can he magically weld this cast into a credible "family." Lewis and Martindale get a lot out of their comically vulgar characters, but are ultimately too one-note. Mulroney delivers a very sharp caricature with less visible effort; Cumberbatch and Nicholson are OK as wallflowers amid invasive stinkweeds. Cooper is the kind of actor who can manage a great deal while seemingly doing very little, while McGregor is the type who can sometimes look like he's working awfully hard to make absolutely no impression whatsoever. The film's success story, I suppose, is Roberts: She seems very comfortable with her character's bitter anger, and the four-letter words tumble past those jumbo lips like familiar friends.
On the downside, there's Streep, who's a wizard and a wonder as usual yet also in that mode supporting the naysayers' view that such conspicuous technique prevents our getting lost in her characters. In the national touring stage production, octogenarian Estelle Parsons was manifestly a cranky old lady — you worried for her going up and down those three flights of stairs, and gasped at her not-at-all-cute potty mouth. Streep acts the shit out of being cranky and old; one suspects between takes she's probably running triathalons and saving whales. She pulls out the stops, but maybe they should have been left in. If Streep can do anything, then logic decrees that include being miscast.
Still, she's a lucky woman alongside Misty Upham, who plays that eternal most-thankless role: The largely mute, ever-observant "ethnic" (here, Native American) domestic-nurse-helper who graces all these yelling white people with her quiet compassion, swooping in to save the innocent and comfort the comfortless when necessary. (She also cooks so well you half expect magical Like Water for Chocolate-style dishes to heal all wounds.) Among the things August has lost in translation is the pretense of unsentimentality. When Gustavo Santaolalla's schmaltzy score drips like molasses over Upham's payoff moments, you know it's gone way too far in the other direction. *
AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY opens January 10 in San Francisco.