“AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY” My rating: C+ (Opens wide on Jan. 10)
121 minutes | MPAA rating R
Some stories were meant to be performed on a stage.
For instance, the plays of Sam Shepard, which deliver moments of violence and affrontery you almost never see in live theater. A Shepard character might be required to beat a typewriter to death with a golf club, smash dozens of glass bottles just feet from the folks in the front row, or urinate on his little sister’s science project in full view of the paying customers.
If those things happened in a movie, you’d shrug. No big deal. In a movie you can do anything.
But seeing those moments play out live, in the flesh, while you brace yourself to dodge flying glass shards or broken typewriter keys…well, that has a way of focusing your mind most wonderfully.
I thought of Shepard’s plays while watching John Wells’ screen version of “August: Osage County,” Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer-winning black comedy about an Oklahoma clan assembled to bury its patriarch (played, ironically enough, by Sam Shepard). In the same way that Shepard’s plays almost never make satisfying movies, “August: Osage County” makes an uncomfortable transition to the screen.
First, don’t buy into the TV ads that make it look like a rollicking comedy. There are laughs here, yeah, but they’re the sort of laughs you can choke on. Dourness is the order of the day.
In adapting his play Letts has boiled a 3 1/2 hour production down to 2 hours. Stuff’s been left out — character development, carefully calibrated pauses — and while the essence of the play remains, it feels curiously underwhelming.