Reviewer’s Rating: ★★★
“My wife takes pills,” poet of the Oklahoma plains Beverly Weston tells the young woman he hires to care for his sick wife. “And I drink.”
Following those few words, Weston disappears. The rounds of blame, bitterness and withering criticism that follow in “August: Osage County” are an excellent reason for him to take leave from his big house on the Oklahoma prairie.
The movie’s all-star ensemble cast — including Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Abigail Breslin, Benedict Cumberbatch, Juliette Lewis and Margo Martindale — does much to drive director John Wells’ and writer Tracy Letts’ adaptation of his Pulitzer Prize-winning play. The film also broadens the play beyond the stage, including landscape scenes of what one especially cynical character calls a bunch of hot, flat nothing.
Early sequences in this severe tale are tough to take, but gradually the film becomes a train-wreck spectacle that’s difficult to look away from. In the mercurial mix, no one is meaner than family matriarch Violet Weston. When she is at her worst, the word monster does come to mind.
Playing Violet, queen of accents Streep speaks in a convincing Southern-country drawl. The actress lets Violet’s destructive, looney-tune character loose upon the normally scattered Weston family, which has come home to roost for a funeral after Beverly’s body is found. An apparent suicide.
Usually, Violet is the loudest, most disruptive, intolerant person in the room. Because the character is written sans filters and played no-holds-barred by Streep, there’s no doubt that she has inflicted massive psychological damage on everyone who’s entered her range. And Violet has more damage to do, in grand doses.
Streep, the recipient of three Oscars and 17 Oscar nominations, is gathering more critical acclaim for her “August: Osage County” performance. The good notices and nominations are deserved. But the sprawling, unhappy mess that Violet and her dysfunctional family are may be over the top for awards voters who prefer entertainment over brutally frank drama. Likewise non-awards-bestowing audiences.
For awards groups that honor ensembles, “August: Osage County” is hard to beat. Streep reigns over the unusually impressive cast but, after Streep, Roberts, co-starring as Violet’s oldest daughter, Barbara, is second in command.
On the occasion of her father’s funeral, the already bitter Barbara must deal with her pain killers-addicted mother as well as her estranged husband (McGregor). Barbara likely is the most dramatic role of Roberts’ career. The actress meets the challenge to a frightening degree.
A story dominated by the Weston women, “August: Osage County” also gives Martindale, an Emmy winner for her work as the wicked matriarch in the FX drama “Justified,” piercing lines and dialogue. Martindale co-stars as Violet’s sister, Mattie Fae Aiken.
Maybe Letts’ greatest accomplishment in the screenplay is his depiction of the Weston women as sisters, mothers and daughters. In that department, Streep, Roberts, Martindale and Lewis, who plays the not surprisingly self-obsessed Karen, make a mighty, truthful stand.
With such big characters on a ship that’s always sinking but never quite submerged, finding an ending that feels like an ending must have been an impossible task. The film and its volume, after being so sprawling, chaotic and loud, fade with a vaguely unsatisfying suggestion that life will go on and people, or at least some people, can finally change.