American family drama on stage is an instantly recognisable brand. Characters open cupboards and skeletons avalanche out. It works in O’Neill, Miller and Albee. It doesn’t work in Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County, which won a mystifying (on this film’s evidence) Pulitzer Prize. We are in Oklahoma, where a cast to die for induces several moments of death wish in the spectator. Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Sam Shepard, Chris Cooper and Benedict Cumberbatch are among those yammering and hullabaloo-ing in south-midwestern twangs.
The themes, roughly inventoried, are sisterly feuding, unhappy marriage, adultery, cancer, incest and death. No one has a good word to say of anyone; bad words are said loudly, floridly, prolixly, repetitively. You keep wishing that William Friedkin, who converted two other Letts plays, if not to gold, then to kitsch with a sparkle (Bug, Killer Joe), had directed this. Instead John Wells, one-time Writers Guild president and a veteran scenarist-producer (ER, The West Wing), “respects the text” and films it as two hours of talking-head-shots logorrhoea.