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.