At first I thought this might be another slice of Weinstein Company Oscar-baiting, a feeling boosted by the awful trailer, which seemed to go for a much softened tone from the acidic, combative original. It looked like a story about family that happened to have some one-liners in it. Luckily, while not perfect, the film does more right than wrong, and captures the spirit of the play extremely well.If you don’t know, the play deals with the aftermath of the disappearance and eventual death of Beverly Weston, the patriarch of an Oklahoma family, a once-acclaimed poet, now drinking heavily and contending with his acerbic wife, Violet, who is constantly popping pills, both to ease her anxiety and to ease the pain caused by an oral cancer (in defiance of which she smokes continually). In the face of this crisis, Beverly and Violet’s daughters are assembled: Barbara, a teacher whose marriage is crumbling, yet is accompanied by her husband, Bill, and their teenage daughter, Jean; Ivy, a wallflower who alone remained near her parents and who yearns to escape Oklahoma and her toxic family; and Karen, an aging wild child who brings along her fiancee Steve, a hotshot businessman. Also included are Violet’s sister, Mattie Fae, her husband Charlie, and their ne’er-do-well son, Little Charles, who is in love with Ivy and plans to run away with her. The family deals with a wealth of tensions, exacerbated by Violet’s self-professed “truth telling”, and by play’s end no one is better off than when they started–at best, they try to ignore their problems and achieve happiness. Party to all of this is Johnna, a live-in cook and maid whom Beverly hires shortly before his disappearance.
The point of it isn’t the story so much as the unstable family dynamics and the opportunities they provide for rich dialogue and bravura acting. Violet is one of the best older-woman roles in modern theater, and Barbara is very nearly her match. I don’t remember the play perfectly, but it seems to me some of the secondary roles were cut down in the adaptation process (one character, the local sheriff, is completely omitted); on stage, as I recall, everyone had a chance to shine, but here, Jean, Steve, Little Charles, and Johnna all feel a bit short-changed. They have their moments, especially Little Charles, but I feel like there’s something missing from the film.
With an ensemble such as this, it feels only right to go down to list and give everyone a hearing.
- Meryl Streep is Beverly, and while I had my doubts that she really deserved her 18th Oscar nomination, I can’t deny that she does a great job here. Granted, Beverly is such a good role that it would require an actively poor effort not to get good results, but after a slightly hammy, theatrical start, Streep sinks her teeth totally into the role, reaching her apex during the great dinner scene, where she unleashes a torrent of viciously witty abuse on her family, proving that she doesn’t give a single fuck in the world. Of course, Violet’s misanthropy hides a deep misery (not to mention the excruciating pain of her cancer), and Streep nails this as well. The nomination makes sense.
- Julia Roberts is Barbara. I’d long been somewhat leery of Roberts as an actress, probably because my mother dislikes her; I’ve honestly only seen her in this and Mirror Mirror, and I’m not averse to checking out more of her work; she’s just as good as Streep is, digging into Barbara’s hurt and anger without falling into ham. When she takes over the family situation, tackling Violet to the floor and declaring a raid to find and dispose of all her pills, it’s a great moment, and near the end, her command to Violet to eat a piece of catfish reaches heights of profane humor (“EAT THE FISH, BITCH!”). Like Streep, she was nominated for an Oscar, and given the relatively weak category, I’d have to say it was deserved.
- Ewan McGregor is Bill, one of two British actors cast as Oklahomans here. That odd fact aside, he does well here, nailing the uniquely pathetic nature of a man who leaves his wife for a much younger woman, yet still wants to be a part of her family.
- Chris Cooper is Charlie, and he gives easily the most underrated performance in the film; Charlie is easily the most tender-hearted character in the whole piece, easily consoling his fuck-up son and defending him from his mother’s put-downs. He finally threatens Mattie Fae with divorce if she doesn’t lay off Little Charles, and Cooper pulls off the mixture of long-boiling frustration and sympathetic love perfectly. A little more screen-time and I’d say he would have been worth an Oscar nomination. Maybe not, but I really liked him here.
- Abigail Breslin is Jean, and she has perhaps the most underwritten character in the piece, almost as if Tracy Letts said “Teenage girls, amirite?”, and left it at that. Jean is one of the only characters who never seems to have a moment of her own, and her justification of her vegetarianism–that by eating meat, one eats the animal’s dying fear–is simply the inspiration for her family’s crass mockery; otherwise, she seems closed-off and awkward (though these qualities are hardly rare in teenagers), and Breslin ultimately does little with the role.
- Benedict Cumberbatch is Little Charles. Cumberbatch captures LC’s loserhood well, but he has surprisingly little to actually do, making Cumberbatch’s casting more baffling than it already was. He doesn’t even get a proper exit line. But he has good chemistry with Cooper and Julianne Nicholson.
- Juliette Lewis is Karen, and she does fine, but Karen is very much the third daughter, and the script offers only fleeting insight into her capricious nature. Lewis does a lot given what little she has to work with, however.
- Margo Martindale is Mattie Fae, and for a time she was floated as a potential Oscar nominee (I mistakenly believed she had originated the role onstage). She’s really good, too–Mattie Fae is Violet’s little sister, and Martindale very much convinces us of that. She gets to offer one of the play’s major revelations (which I will not spoil), and does it without overselling the moment. It’s not really a nomination-worthy performance, but it’s a good one.
- Dermot Mulroney is Steve, and he gets somewhat shorted by the film’s handling of a fairly vital scene, where he and Jean secretly smoke pot in the middle of the night, and he begins to make advances on her, which earns him a bashing in the head (in the play I think it was a skillet; in the film it’s a shovel) from Johnna. In the film, though, the scene is seen mostly from a distance, from Johnna’s POV, and while onstage he’s clearly supposed to kiss her, in the film this is not really seen, and it feels as if the filmmakers got squeamish and allowed the moment to be blunted. Beyond that, Mulroney gets Steve’s overgrown-frat-boy attitude right, he just doesn’t get enough time to display it.
- Julianne Nicholson is Ivy. She holds her own here, an impressive given Ivy’s mousy nature. Her love for Little Charles doesn’t get much screen-time, but works when we see it. Ivy is weary of her family and plans to go to NYC to start anew, and Nicholson puts across all of that fatigue and yearning skillfully.
- Sam Shepard is Beverly, and although he’s in very little of the film, his underplaying of Beverly’s cosmic misery (which drives him to his fatal act) is absolutely brilliant. In tandem with his even better work in Mud, he had a great year, and it’s a bit of a shame he didn’t come even close to any awards for it.
- Misty Upham is Johnna, and she does fine, but there’s just not much to the role, and the film doesn’t give her much help, plus it takes the final moment of the play, shared by Johnna and Violet, and gives all the dialogue to Violet–a shame, although the original might have seemed a bit stilted on film.
John Wells directs, and he mostly keeps things running smoothly. The botched Steve-Jean aside, it’s a perfectly adequate but unremarkable job. Tracy Letts adapted his own play, and doesn’t dick with it too much, though as I mentioned, the focus seems to have been shifted more fully to Violet and Barbara (my memory of the play is that Violet is the central figure, and most of the others are on a common plane of support) at the expense of the secondary characters. There are a few attempts at opening the material up, none of which really distract from the fact that the play is a single-set piece (albeit, in the production I saw, a massive set). Technically it’s competent across the board; Gustavo Santaolalla’s score, when it’s particularly noticeable, is the kind of heavy “dramatic” material one associates with the Oscar-bait kind of film I feared this would be.
A fine ensemble and a decently-handled adaptation of an excellent play make for a solid afternoon at the movies. It loses some steam near the end (the final half hour gets a bit shaky as it tries to wrap everything up), but it has more than enough going for it to be worth a viewing. Though, if you can see or read the play first, do so; the uninitiated may be a little confused at times.