Streep, Roberts Dazzle In Deliciously Dark "August: Osage County"

Theater fans, rejoice. The much anticipated “August: Osage County” – adapted by writer Tracy Letts from his own 2007 play – mostly stays true to its stage roots, forgoing cinematic accoutrements in favor of good, old-fashioned verbal fireworks. Yes, its dusty, shot-in-Oklahoma exteriors provide an authenticity that no theater could replicate, but make no mistake – this is an acting showcase, pure and simple. The film’s massive, star-studded cast digs into Lett’s meaty character work like they’ve been deprived of human contact for months, and the result is as darkly funny and compelling as could be expected.

Scenery chewing abounds in “August,” and detractors might accuse its two stars, Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts, of – gasp! – overacting. But even if the film is little more than Oscar bait, it’s great Oscar bait, and fans of powerhouse, less than subtle performances would be loath to miss this cast of heavyweights face off. Once in a lifetime, indeed.

The film opens on sixty-something Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard) – formerly renowned poet turned alcoholic – pondering a T.S. Eliot quote. “Life is very long,” Weston confirms, all the while pondering why Eliot is credited with such a universal adage. He’s interviewing a live-in caregiver for his wife, Violet (Streep), his disdain for his partner barely concealed by his gamboling southern accent. When Violet stumbles down the stairs, Beverly bristles in her presence, each syllable of her endless, intermittently nonsensical small talk prodding at him like a battalion of pitchforks.

Despite her gaunt appearance – a result of chemotherapy – Violet’s commanding aura screams “matriarch,” her oversized wig and gentle facial features belying her fierceness. It’s not immediately clear if she uses her power for good or ill, but it’s obvious that she brings out strong emotions in everyone around her. Within the film’s first twenty minutes, Beverly goes missing and Violet’s daughter, Barbara (Roberts), is summoned to the family’s Oklahoma townhouse. With her daughter, Jean (Abigail Breslin), and currently off-again husband, Bill (Ewan McGregor) in tow, Barbara reluctantly makes the trip from Colorado.

Barbara’s relationship with her mother is inherently combative, but it changes throughout the film, giving Roberts plenty of dramatic space in which to work. Her performance begins unremarkably, but quickly becomes her best work since “Erin Brockovich,” as she melts away into the character as best a household name can. Streep does similarly excellent work, giving layers to an innately loud and dominating screen presence.

As the situation at the Weston homestead escalates, more and more family members join in on the fun, from Uncle Charlie (Chris Cooper) and his wife, Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale), to Barbara’s two sisters, Karen (Juliette Lewis) and Ivy (Julianne Nicholson). The attraction of “August: Osage County” comes not from its plot twists – although there are a few of those – but from the way its characters react to said plot twists, and consequently, interact with one another.

In the hands of a meddling director, the star power of the piece might have overshadowed its thematics, but John Wells (“The Company Men”) capably steers the ship with a refreshingly passive directorial voice. Since the play’s running time was whittled down by more than an hour, the screenplay packs a lot of material into a relatively tight 2 hours and 10 minutes, but Wells and Letts aren’t afraid to indulge when they feel it necessary. For example, the dinner scene that’s the centerpiece of the work is given at least 20 minutes of screen time – an extraordinary amount of time for one scene of a film – but the material justifies it, and the actors gleefully seize the opportunity and run like hell with it.

Dermot Mulroney as Steve, Karen’s scumbag fiancé, and Benedict Cumberbatch as “Little” Charlie, son of Charlie and Mattie Fae, round out the rest of the ensemble. Each of the eleven main players brings something very specific to the picture’s inner workings, with everyone impressing in his or her own way. Aside from Streep and Roberts, Juliette Lewis particularly impresses, remaking her own brand of airhead into something more that makes her character’s inexplicable life choices somehow understandable.

The Westons are a funnel cloud of dysfunction – every waking moment an opportunity for pain and every word an opportunity for something sardonic, disturbing, amusing, or downright cruel – but always compelling. Those longing for visual theatrics or an upbeat family gathering flick should look elsewhere, but for stage adaptations, “August: Osage County” is the cream of the crop. This cast and crew is so well suited to bring this story to life that it’s nearly serendipitous, and the film will play like catnip to fans of the play – aside from an ending that may very well be changed in the six weeks before its release. All that’s needed is a smash to black about 2 minutes before the film currently ends. With just one small tweak, “August” immediately becomes an Oscar heavyweight.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Excellent)

Release Date: December 25, 2013 (Limited)
Studio: The Weinstein Company
Director: John Wells
Screenwriter: Tracy Letts
Starring: Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Abigail Breslin, Benedict Cumberbatch, Juliette Lewis, Margo Martindale, Dermot Mulroney, Julianne Nicholson, Sam Shepard, Misty Upham
MPAA Rating: R (for language including sexual references, and for drug material)