August: Osage County

The Westons of Osage County, Okla., where it is currently August, are the kind of family that movies have always thrived on: people you’d never, ever want to have any connection to in real life, but whose vicious squabbles are entertaining to watch from a safe distance. Furthermore, “August: Osage County” (both as a Pulitzer-winning play and now as a movie) is the sort of drama that actors love: a thick, dialogue-oriented piece of fiction that gives multiple performers many opportunities to ham it up. Jam-packed with snarking, lying, brawling, crying, drinking, and smoking, it lends itself easily to big, capital-A Acting, both comic and tragic.

The movie version, directed by John Wells (“The Company Men”) and adapted by the playwright, Tracy Letts (“Killer Joe”), gathers a terrific ensemble of actors. Every member of the troupe seems delighted to be in the production: Meryl Streep as Violet, the boisterous, pill-popping, cancer-stricken, daughter-tormenting matriarch; Sam Shepard as Beverly, her heavy-drinking novelist husband; Julia Roberts, Julianne Nicholson, and Juliette Lewis as their offspring; Margo Martindale and Chris Cooper as Violet’s sister and brother-in-law; Ewan McGregor and Dermot Mulroney as sons-in-law; Abigail Breslin as a teenage granddaughter; Benedict Cumberbatch as a nephew. If you put this cast on Broadway, you’d sell out a year in advance.

But on Broadway, you’d have more time to develop the characters, which means more opportunity to give the audience some real emotional connection to them. The play is 3 1/2 hours long; the movie chops out 40 percent of it to bring it down to an even two hours. The behind-the-scenes reasons for this are obvious and perhaps inescapable — moviegoers avoid 210-minute domestic dramas, even funny ones that star Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts — but the result is a film whose effects are fleeting where they should be memorable, lightweight instead of resonant.

It is a fun way to spend a couple hours, though. (Fun for us, I mean. It’s miserable for them.) The occasion is the disappearance of Beverly Weston, who has occasionally run off before but never for this long. The dutiful middle daughter, Ivy (Nicholson), still lives in town, while the others have fled: headstrong Barbara (Roberts) and her husband Bill (McGregor) to Colorado; trashy Karen (Lewis) to Florida, where she’s bagged a showy, Corvette-driving clown of a fiance, Steve (Mulroney). They all come home when Dad goes missing, to help Violet cope and to sort through whatever aftermath there may be. Aunt Mattie Fae and Uncle Charlie (Martindale and Cooper) are on hand, too, joined by their son, Little Charles (Cumberbatch), who’s a disappointment to Mattie Fae and must constantly be defended by Charlie.

We learn plenty about everyone’s relationship with everyone else. There’s no need to summarize it all here; suffice it to say that there is no shortage of disagreeable feelings and terrible secrets mixed in with the genuine familial affection that sometimes manifests itself. And it all goes back to Violet — Violet, that brash, opinionated, sometimes cruel wife and mother whose being stricken with mouth cancer seems like an appropriate punishment for her tart tongue. Streep fairly explodes with Acting, chewing the scenery like a hungry beaver as Violet pokes, cajoles, and manipulates her relatives. What makes it fun is that no one puts up with it for very long. This is a whole family of pot-stirrers and openers of old wounds.

As Violet’s faculties wane and she proves unsuited for making decisions, eldest daughter Barbara steps up as the new taskmaster. One of the major thematic threads of the play is Barbara’s concern that she will turn into her mother. The movie waters that down a bit, just as it does with nearly everything else (Barbara and Bill’s tumultuous marriage, Ivy’s spinsterhood, etc.). As a whole, the film gets by on its cast of fine actors doing charismatic work, and that’s enough to recommend it. But it’s a shame Wells couldn’t capture the extremes of the play — the hilarious highs as well as the devastating lows. What we have instead is rather glossy, like a sitcom version of a Eugene O’Neill play.

B- (2 hrs., 1 min.; R, abundant profanity including some sexual dialogue.)

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