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.