Playwright Tracy Letts’ crowded ensemble drama “August: Osage County” centers on a massive family engaged in constant squabbling, which means that it demands a cast willing to engage in fiery theatrics. It’s no surprise, then, that director John Wells’ big screen adaptation features significant name talent throwing their weight around. Condensing the material into just over two hours and taking cues from Letts’ screenplay, Wells services the play mainly by sitting back and letting the A-listers lead the way. The result is a distinctly uneven but imminently watchable theatrical showcase in which cinematic and stagy devices go head to head with no clear winner.
Unlike previous feature-length treatments of Letts’ plays, William Friedkin’s equally wildly pulpy “Bug” and “Killer Joe,” the writer’s Pulitzer Prize-winning work sets aside plot in favor of unending conflict. The essence of the movie is laid out in the first scene, when drug-addled Oklahoma matriarch Violet Weston (Meryl Streep) arrives downstairs in her country home while her husband, established writer Beverly (Sam Sheperd in a brief but effective cameo), interviews young Native American Johnna (Misty Upham) for a housekeeping gig. Nearly bald and slurring her words, Streep has the immediate presence of an aging woman on the last leg of her life. After she drifts out of the room in mid-conversation, Beverley points out the irony of Violet’s condition: She’s suffering from mouth cancer. In fact, everyone in “August: Osage County” strains from verbal ailments, even if the rest aren’t quite as dire. Predictably overwrought and wildly histrionic, the movie foregrounds a chaotic mixed bag of show-stopping speeches.
Cut to a few scenes later and Beverly has been discovered dead in the lake, most likely by his own hand. As the rest of the estranged family swoops into the house for moral support, it takes a solid act just to establish the colorful set of individuals populating each scene: First comes Violet’s oldest daughter, the aggressively individualistic Barbara (Julia Roberts), who arrives with her estranged husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) and their 14-year-old stoner daughter Jean (a stone-faced Abigail Breslin) in tow. Her two sisters, garrulous naif Karen (a typically goofy Juliette Lewis) and soft-spoken loner Ivy (a nondescript Julianne Nicholson) follow close behind with her own relationship woes. Karen’s engaged in a doomed romance with Steve (Dermot Mulroney), while Ivy has been secretly carrying on with their self-conscious cousin appropriately nicknamed “Little” Charles Aiken (Benedict Cumberbatch). His mother, Violet’s fiercely judgmental sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale) routinely clashes with her humorless longtime husband Charles (Chris Cooper). Distributor The Weinstein Company would be well-advised to offer viewers with a flowchart to sort through everyone onscreen.
With so many personalities in play, “August: Osage County” could poke at its secrets and simmering tensions indefinitely, and at times it feels like it does. Almost exclusively set in the creaky old house and the expansive fields surrounding it, the plot continually shifts from one set of showdowns to the next. Often darkly funny and sometimes just plain dark, the story never loses its swirling momentum, though it rises and falls on the basis of what the script asks of its performers.
In that regard, Streep remains a sore point at the root of the storyline. From her initial appearance onward, she’s an insufferably over-the-top loon. Her eyes constantly bulging and mocking tone undulating wildly, she has the dimensions of a Gollum-like monstrosity out of sync with the subtler performances around her. Yet with time, Violet’s cartoonish extremes creates a reasonable centerpiece for explaining the pervasive issues plaguing the other characters. In denial about her self-destructive tendencies, she constantly attempts to convey an unearned authority that spreads to her relatives. “In my day,” she fumes after picking up on Barbara’s marriage woes, “families stayed together.” Letts’ script tests that assertion by gradually revealing how the demons of her past determine the family’s issues in the present.
Wells seems content to let the salty, voracious relatives face off in relatively straightforward terms. Just as the longtime writer-producer’s 2010 directorial debut “The Company Men” showcased corporate dysfunction, “August: Osage County” treats the notion of family bonds as a similarly creaky institution comprised of people thrust together in spite of their mutual willingness to break apart. After 130 minutes of feuds with only the occasional casual exchange — a pivotal scene when the trio of sisters discuss their lives stands out merely because nobody ends up yelling at its end — “August: Osage County” arrives more or less in the same place where it starts, as a series of fragmentary encounters with tempestuous and conniving victims of self-interest.
The only time film language actually mandates the narrative comes from a prolonged dinner table sequence featuring virtually the entire cast, as telling closeups between various members of the brood draw out their interlocking agendas and resentments. Mainly, though, the movie operates as if cameras were invading a well-designed play. But at least it has a polished look: Despite the contemporary setting, Adriana Goldman’s elegant cinematography gives the setting an antiquated feel, establishing a cogent theme of old fashioned values fighting to the bitter end.
Even so, the collective fury of the family makes it difficult to invest much in their singular issues. Among the bit parts, it’s actually the men that succeed the most: Cooper delivers a handful of transfixing monologues that give him the luxury of counteracting the family’s ubiquitous insanity. Mulroney’s fratty energy provides an amusing contrast to the lack of ebullience around him, while the despairing McGregor’s makes engaging attempts to hold his own against his wife, Roberts’ commanding Barbara. Of course, it’s the women that truly run the show, and Roberts emerges as the most credibly assertive of the bunch.
There’s enough palpable acting technique battling for screen time that a lot of it gets lost in the shuffle. Upham’s Native American maid barely receives more than a few perfunctory lines, while a restrained Cumberbatch only appears long enough to play a sweet love song to his cousin-lover before devolving into a contrivance. His ultimate fate stems from one of many revelations used to make “August: Osage County” tremble with histrionic density.
Wells deserves credit for juggling countless subplots without deflating the vitality of the material. The movie’s so busy with squabbling that it’s best appreciated as a collage of flawed intentions rather than their collective outcome. “You people amaze me,” Barbara exclaims at one point, and she speaks for all of us.
Criticwire grade: B
HOW WILL IT PLAY? The Weinstein Company releases “August: Osage County” on Christmas Day, when interest in the high profile cast and well-known material should lead to respectable returns. However, reviews have been mixed and the crowded awards season has lessened potential for “August” to gain much traction in the long-term.
A version of this review ran during the Toronto International Film Festival.