'August: Osage County’ blisters with family dysfunction

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(1 vote, average 5.00 out of 5)
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Photo: Courtesy Meryl Streep and Juliette Lewis star in August: Osage County.

It’s unlikely that any family dinner of yours will equal the rollicking, vicious one at the heart of August: Osage County, the blistering film adaptation of the Pulitzer-winning Tracy Letts play starring Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts.

The most biting insults come from the mouth of the one and only Streep, who holds absolutely nothing back in a performance that could be called showy except that’s it’s so compelling and deeply faithful to the script. As Violet Weston, the 65-year-old matriarch of an Oklahoma clan, she serves up one of the most spectacularly damaged characters in memory. And as written by the hugely talented Letts, who has both playwriting and acting Tonys to go with his Pulitzer, she’s someone you’ll want to meet — if only once.

August: Osage County, directed by John Wells, does not work best as a movie, even with a screenplay by Letts himself. Those who saw it onstage in Chicago or on Broadway will likely recall a nearly perfect theatrical experience, one that left them drained but grateful after three hours.

But the material feels less naturally suited to film, and a brief final scene feels tacked on for cinematic purposes. But those are not fatal flaws.

Virtually all the action takes place in a crumbling home in the heart of the Oklahoma plains, baking in the August heat. It’s the home of Violet and her husband Beverly, a 69-year-old poet and raging alcoholic. “My wife takes pills and I drink,” he says. “That’s the bargain we’ve struck.”

And Violet does some serious pill-taking. As a result, the regal Streep is wrinkled and pale, with a craggy fuzz of gray hair peeking out of a dark wig, the consequence of chemotherapy for mouth cancer. She has stains on her baggy sweater and can’t keep her balance. Tufts of smoke from her cigarettes linger in the stifling air, because she doesn’t believe in air conditioning. Plastic shades are taped shut, blocking out natural light.

The extended family is summoned home when Beverly mysteriously disappears. All are forced to sit together, talk together, eat together, and of course face some serious family truths. 

Margo Martindale is absolutely pitch-perfect as Violet’s sister Mattie Fae, at once boisterous, flighty, warm, and witheringly insensitive to her awkward adult son, Charlie (Benedict Cumberbatch). Or, as Mom calls him, “Little Charlie,” which should tell you a lot.

Also wonderful is Chris Cooper as Mattie Fae’s long-suffering husband, and Julianne Nicholson as the lonely and misunderstood Ivy, one of Violet’s daughters. The top-flight cast also includes Sam Shepard, Juliette Lewis, Ewan McGregor, Abigail Breslin and Dermot Mulroney.

Much depends, though, on the dynamic between Violet and daughter Barbara (Roberts), who’s in the throes of a disintegrating marriage. This is one of the meatiest roles Roberts has had in a long time, and she handles it with an admirable lack of vanity. Gone is that high-wattage Roberts smile. Barbara is weary, bitter and shrewish.

Watch her in that dinner scene, trying to dodge her mother’s verbal missiles, until she no longer can. Come to think of it,  watch absolutely everyone in that scene.

And then plan your own family dinner, secure in the knowledge that it could never, ever be this bad.

See other reviews of recently released Oscar contenders on Wisconsin screens by clicking here.

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