'August: Osage County': Quiet small town, loud big melodrama
August: Osage County is the movie equivalent of Denny's Lumberjack Slam breakfast. If eggs, bacon, and toast aren't enough, throw in some ham, some sausage, pancakes, and hash browns. And then throw in more ham.
A piled-high platter of histrionics, this heartland saga - adapted from Tracy Letts' Pulitzer- and Tony-winning play - is steeped in a grand American theater tradition: the dysfunctional family drama, full of dark secrets, darker resentments, and the darkest sense of dread. Tennessee Williams, Eugene O'Neill, Edward Albee - you get the drift. Before it's all over, everybody gets a chance to explode.
Although August: Osage County takes place in the here and now, it's a here and now that could just as well be the 1950s or '60s. Downtown Pawhuska, Okla. - where one of the principals, Benedict Cumberbatch, playing American, and playing milquetoast, arrives by bus, late for an important family sit-down - probably hasn't changed in the last 50 years. Well, Main Street's emptied out, shops have shuttered. The town is the biggest in Osage County. Population: 3,584.
Among the folks who make up that number are the battered old marrieds Beverly and Violet Weston. Beverly (Sam Shepard) is a poet and a drinker - a distant figure who becomes significantly more so after an opening scene in which he's interviewing a woman, an American Indian (Misty Upham), to be a caregiver for his wife.
Violet - played pitch black and nasty by Meryl Streep - has cancer of the mouth but continues to smoke. She has enough prescription drugs in her medicine cabinet (and planted elsewhere around the house) to open a pharmacy. She can keel over in a fit of dizziness, but she can also run you over with her vindictiveness, her bitterness, her razor-blade wit.
There are three Weston daughters. Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) seems down to earth and lives nearby; Karen (Juliette Lewis) returns from Florida with a new beau (Dermot Mulroney) in tow. And Barbara (Julia Roberts), the eldest, drives in from Colorado with her husband (Ewan McGregor) and their 14-year-old daughter (Abigail Breslin). Their marriage is in its final stages - he's found a younger woman - but Barbara isn't about to share the news. She sees herself as the rock, the anchor, the one who, unlike her mother, has everything under control.
The arguments between Violet and Barbara begin almost immediately, and before it's over, they'll be rolling on the floor, a mother/daughter Mixed Martial Arts slapfest.
Letts has opened his play up, cut a few scenes, and added a coda, and director John Wells (The Company Men) moves things along with as much efficiency as possible. Streep does what Streep does - that is, transforms, in this case, into a monster. Chris Cooper and Margo Martindale join the crowd, but it is Roberts who makes August: Osage County watchable, and more: As Barbara, the actress' wariness and weariness, her caustic humor - deployed to hide a deep sadness - all ring true. It's the one performance in this open-wound roundelay that doesn't, in fact, feel like a performance.
Pass the maple-flavored syrup, please.
August: Osage County **1/2 (Out of four stars)
Directed by John Wells. With Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Benedict Cumberbatch, Sam Shepard, and Chris Cooper. Distributed by the Weinstein Co.
Running time: 2 hours, 1 min.
Parent's guide: R (profanity, drugs, adult themes)
Playing at: area theaters