Asked what it was like to have to trim almost half of his
play’s running time for a screen adaptation, Tracy Letts replied, “It was
excruciating.” I can only imagine, as some characters clearly get short shrift
in this condensation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning show. Yet as a showcase for
a host of gifted actors, it remains potent and entertaining.
Watching Meryl Streep is always a joy, I daresay a privilege. She tears into a juicy role as matriarch of a deeply troubled Oklahoma family. The death of her husband (Sam Shepard) brings far-flung siblings and children back to their homestead for the funeral and its aftermath. Over the course of a few days, and especially over the dinner table, old wounds are reopened, long-held resentments aired anew, and layer by layer, we discover the ugly skeletons in this family’s closet. When the air clears, it’s up to the individuals to decide what they should do next.
The cast couldn’t be better, and each one gets a chance to shine—some more consistently than others. Julia Roberts is quite good as the daughter who stands up to her mother. Margo Martindale is wonderful (as always) as Streep’s earthy sister, and Chris Cooper equally shines as Martindale’s husband. Juliette Lewis and Julianne Nicholson have sterling moments as Roberts’ sisters, while Dermot Mulroney and Ewan McGregor do yeoman service as men who married into the dysfunctional clan. Abigail Breslin and Misty Upham make the most of their relatively minor roles. I’m not sure Benedict Cumberbatch’s role, as Martindale and Cooper’s callow son, was worth the time it took for him to fly from London to Oklahoma, but he does as fine a job as one would expect.
Director John Wells takes a straightforward approach to this sprawling material and allows us to be spectators, taking in the dirty laundry one piece at a time. For a film that relies so much on dialogue, it flows surprisingly well.
Yet as good as it is, this movie made me want to see the four-hour play; I’m sorrier than ever that I missed it on Broadway and in Los Angeles. Given the exigencies of mainstream moviemaking, Letts and Wells decided to focus on the two dominant female characters played by Streep and Roberts. That’s a reasonable trade-off, but I couldn’t help thinking there had to be more to the male characters than is revealed in this screenplay. As a moviegoer, I shouldn’t be thinking about what’s missing.