Streep drives ‘Osage County’ in wrong direction

The comforting thing about putting up a play on Broadway is that there are weeks of previews. If actors are pursuing mistaken ideas about their character, if they have the tone of the show completely wrong, they will go out before a live audience and lay an egg — and afterward be humbly receptive to whatever the director and playwright have to say.

With movies, the actors go before the cameras with what is close to a first draft, which makes the guidance of a strong director all important. But what happens if the director is relatively inexperienced at directing features? And what happens if the actress destroying the movie is rightly recognized as one of the greatest in the world? Then you have the formula for disaster — for “August: Osage County,” a thoroughly botched, distorted and unrealized rendering of a brilliant American play.

The problem was that director John Wells did not understand the play, or at the very least, he did not make his actors understand the play, even at its most basic level. Here’s one little example: The actors onscreen are under the impression that they’re in a straight drama, and they’re not. They’re in a very dark comedy.

As conceived by Tracey Letts, Violet is a pill-popping monster, an evil matriarch with a foul and vicious mouth, utterly confident and pleased with herself, not at all self-pitying, although she’ll feign self-pity if she needs to. She is one of those grand characters that an audience sees and within seconds knows, OK, we’re going to have a good time with her. Horrible, but funny. That’s the role.

More than the role, it’s the whole play — its appeal, its nature, its genre. So what happens? Meryl Streep walks into her first scene and soon delivers a key line, one in which Violet lashes out at her husband and establishes her character in a sentence: “Why don’t you go f – a f –’ sow’s a–?” The line can’t quite be printed, but even its shadow identifies it as appalling and funny, and not the sad cry from the heart that Streep plays.

Whatever the reason or combination of reasons, Streep digs deep inside and locates Violet’s sadness, her vulnerability, her intelligence and even her inner child and hammers on those qualities from the entrance. These should be discoveries, the result of layers being pulled off over the course of the action.

Everything else on screen is the 50-car pile-up. Streep is the accident. As Violet’s eldest daughter, Julia Roberts matches Streep, and she’s fine. Julianne Nicholson brings sensitivity and presence to the relatively straight role of the middle sister, Ivy. But only Juliette Lewis as the youngest sister, Karen, and Margo Martindale as Aunt Mattie Fae have a complete grasp of the material’s proper tone, which is not quite realistic but mixes black comedy with drama.

Throughout, Wells seems lost. The blocking of the actors and the cutting are arbitrary, with no psychological or dramatic purpose. “August: Osage County” was a three-hour play that felt like two hours. It has been made into a two-hour movie that felt like a month.