From left, Meryl Streep, Julianne Nicholson, and Juliette Lewis in a scene from "August: Osage County."
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Tracy Letts’ prize-bedecked Broadway drama August: Osage County clatters onto the screen in hit-or-miss fashion, with a cadre of stars who go at each other like drivers in a demolition derby.
Here, despite honest efforts by Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Juliette Lewis, Benedict Cumberbatch, and director John Wells, the film can’t transcend its theatrical, non-naturalistic roots. An experience that should be shattering is merely battering.
The story is a three-ring tragicomedy of adultery, alcoholism, drug addiction, incest, and poor table manners. It’s set in Pawhuska, Okla., at the funeral for Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard), a poet and semiprofessional drinker who has graduated from drowning his sorrows to drowning himself. His passing reunites the family’s three daughters, their significant others, and sundry relations in the sweltering family house. This provides what military strategists call a target-rich environment for Bev’s sardonic, serpent-tongued widow, Violet (Streep, in a performance both no-holds-barred and subtly controlled).
No shrinking violet is vile, violent Vi. While she’s exultant at having outlived Bev, she’s bitterly aware that she’s next. Vi has cancer of the mouth, no doubt caused by her venomous tongue. Despite being half-zonked on painkillers, she works overtime provoking the relatives she rarely sees. Vi calls her witty, shame-based verbal sadism honesty. She is a truth teller in the same way an operator of a wrecking ball is a home remodeler.
August: Osage County
Directed by John Wells.
Written by Tracy Letts.
A Weinstein Co. release, playing at Cinemark Franklin Park and levis Commons.
Rated R for language including sexual references, and for drug material.
Running time: 121 minutes.
Critic’s rating: ★★★
Cast: Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor.
Her main quarry is her three daughters. Passive, clinging Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) has remained close to home, ostensibly out of dutiful concern but actually to be near her scandalous secret lover. Embittered Barbara (Roberts) abandoned a promising writing career, following her teacher husband, Bill (McGregor), into academic anonymity and an unraveling marriage. She’s called Barb, appropriately, the offspring best equipped for nostril-flaring, eye-blazing, fang-baring rumbles with mom. Moonbeam optimist Karen (Lewis) arrives from Florida with a thrice-divorced lothario of a fiancé, Steve (Dermot Mulroney), who letches on Barb and Bill’s pot-smoking 14-year-old daughter, Jean (Abigail Breslin.)
Also in the free-fire zone are Vi’s vulgar sister, Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale), her down-to-earth husband, Charlie (Chris Cooper), and their intellectually underendowed son, Little Charles (Cumberbatch.)
Streep gets a jokey pleasure out of Vi’s cruelty, and for stretches, so do we, laughing as we wince. When the men arrive at the table without coat and tie, Violet sharply reminds them the occasion is “a funeral, not a cock fight.” Actually it’s both, as one explosive Weston family secret after another is revealed in an escalating fever of group madness. After a flurry of recriminations, Roberts says, “Thank God, we can’t tell the future; we’d never get out of bed.”
Some of the casting is off. Cumberbatch is too intelligent to play the bumbling, namby-pamby Little Charles and McGregor’s star power is wasted on his role as a bland college professor. Streep and Roberts are suited to their parts but perform at a heroic pitch that’s appropriate for the stage but overscaled for cinema.