August: Osage County (2013)
121 min., rated R.
Suicide. Addiction. Adultery. Cancer. Incest. Verbal and physical abuse. Being dishonestly marketed as a rosier, palatable family comedy—and curiously released on Christmas day in select theaters by the Weinstein Company, possibly to assure audiences that their families are perfect by comparison—"August: Osage County" has bitchy, barbed humor poking around the edges, but it's a watchably bleak melodrama first with such heavy thematics and a side of scenery-chewing. The film is based on the Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning Broadway play by acclaimed playwright Tracy Letts, whose extremely intense Southern-fried works have already been brought to the screen by William Friedkin with both 2007's "Bug" and 2012's "Killer Joe." Unevenly condensed from three and a half hours to two, Letts' screenplay boils down to a family soap opera where skeletons tumble out of the closet and dirty laundry gets aired out in the open, but as a play on film, it has by no means lost its darkly comedic sting. Rather, it's a master class in acting, bolstered immeasurably by its main course — that first-rate ensemble cast.
"August: Osage County," obviously set during a very hot month in Oklahoma, begins with the disappearance and subsequent death of the Weston patriarch, Beverly (Sam Shepard), who was a poet and a drunk. His funeral draws the dysfunctional Weston clan to the farmhouse, now solely inhabited by Beverly's wife, Violet (Meryl Streep), an overmedicated, chain-smoking, vitrol-spewing piece of work who ironically has cancer of the mouth, and newly hired Native American housekeeper Johnna (Misty Upham). The Westons' estranged daughters include Barbara (Julia Roberts), who lives in Colorado with broody 14-year-old daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin) and just separated from husband Bill (Ewan McGregor); even-keeled middle sibling Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), who stuck around to take care of her parents; and the chatty, air-headed Karen (Juliette Lewis), who moved to Miami and brings along her latest man, sleazy fiancée Steve (Dermot Mulroney), in his flashy Ferrari. There is also Violet's younger sister, Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale), long-suffering husband Charlie (Chris Cooper), and their unemployed, emotionally stunted son, "Little" Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch). Violet appreciates Ivy but favors Barb, probably because she truly is a "mother's daughter" in cruel temperament. With so much family togetherness, old wounds are opened and resentments rear their ugly head.
Director John Wells (2010's "The Company Men") organically opens up the staginess of the play just enough to fill the film medium as best as anyone probably could. Occasionally breaking away from the brutally honest putdowns and unrestrained smackdowns inside that one cooped-up but isolated setting are exteriors and beautiful snapshots of the Oklahoma plains and landscapes. The production details of the family's home feel lived-in, and Wells makes us feel the August heat, which takes on a figurative meaning once the Westons get together. Also, Eric Clapton's upbeat "Lay Down Sally" turns into a song of grief. Akin to live theatre, characters often talk in monologues around the dinner table and the material doesn't always call for subtlety, especially when the shriekfests begin and lunch plates get thrown threefold. It might seem a bit much, sounding more screechy and broadly pitched than it really is. When it actually is, by turns amusing, memorably mean, and tensely uncomfortable, there's a 20-minute post-funeral dinner devolving into a hideous spat, where you know Violet is ready to pounce as soon as she sits at the head of the table and lights up a cigarette. A bigger problem is what Letts had to cut. As a result, not all of the family members and subplots are fully drawn, and housekeeper Johnna's observer role becomes largely forgotten before the end, but the jaundiced relationship between Violet and Barb is the developed crux of the biscuit.
For mere entertainment value, it's a thrill and hoot to watch two of the industry's most vital leading ladies, one known for being an acting powerhouse and the other a radiant movie star, go toe to toe and be free of vanity. Streep can sink her teeth into just about any role and, without surprise, she's dynamite as Violet, who's an outspoken, pill-popping widow but not a shrinking violet nor the nurturing type. Violet is who she is, toxic and mad as hell, and we see why she drove her children away. If you thought the aging actress projected to the back row in "Mamma Mia!," this is her doing Joan Crawford. A regal thespian who never hams out of character, the de-glammed Streep goes all in, like a ferocious cyclone ripping through an entire town, and the acidic dialogue just rolls off her tongue. Bitter and seething as Barb, who's none too shy in rolling up her sleeves and sticking the verbal knife back into her mother while being left to the fate of her hard hereditary make-up, Roberts hasn't had a juicier part since 2004's "Closer." Without widening her mega-watt smile, America's likable sweetheart seems to be relishing the opportunity to play an understandably unpleasant shrew in believably volatile form, and it's refreshing to see more moving, layered work from her. And what an acerbic pleasure to hear Roberts harshly tell Ms. Streep, "Eat the fish, bitch!" and go on a cussing spree like a sailor.
Accommodating the two center-stage showboaters, the remaining actors, all ten of them, still have their hearts in this project, etching their characters with color, depth and a complex history; it's a relief how well director Wells dials back the supporting performances within such a tight space. Martindale is pitch-perfect and finds truth and forgiveness within all the melodrama as Mattie Fae, who shares the same blood as sister Violet without letting her snippy truth-telling all hang out until her disappointing son arrives. As Barb's younger sisters, Nicholson brings a wonderful calm and affectingly underplays her simmering emotions, and Lewis initially adds levity and then lets us see a bruised, delusional woman with the worst taste in men. Breslin holds her own as Barb's vegetarian daughter, and McGregor is two-note but manages a little empathy as the unfaithful husband. As the one outsider (save for Upham's Johnna), Mulroney gets to have the most fun, blaring Ricky Martin's "Livin' La Vida Loca" from his sports car in the country and getting laughs during the dinner scene. Cooper is funny and quite poignant in his heartbreaking last scene of finally speaking his mind as Mattie Fae's husband, and Cumberbatch touchingly digs into an odder, more sensitive side than we've seen from him as the put-upon Charles, but he's given short shrift. Finally, before he's gone for good, Shepard gives it his all as Beverly, who shows the most human decency by being dead.
"Thank god we can't tell the future; we'd never get out of bed," Barbara tells Jean. As oppressively downbeat as that line and living inside a country home with the shades taped shut, the story has enough thematic darkness with its dozen players occupying one madhouse, but it doesn't have much emotional closure or leave the impact it should. Squeezing in weighty, taboo subjects is not the same or as dramatically satisfying as actually exploring them, and one family secret is such a stretch that it grows even ickier than how it first appeared. Still, for a black comedy, the dialogue is far from cuddly, quick as a whip, and often hilariously punchy. It should also be said that the film isn't wholly ineffectual as drama; the quiet respites are just richer than the strident, if nonetheless-entertaining, screaming matches out of The Jerry Springer Show. Sliding between cutting remarks, theatrics, and pain, "August: Osage County" could be an unendurable downer to the majority, but limited to its performances and Letts' literate, razor-sharp words, it can be an upper. The whole thing is worthwhile as long as one doesn't inflate the film's worth for being much more than a showy, electrically performed actors' showcase.