Film Review: August: Osage County

Tracy Letts’ screen adaptation of his acclaimed Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name is juicy melodrama of the highest order that puts him in a class with Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee and the like.

Already duly noted, awards-worthy performances are unusually plentiful in this season’s crop of pictures. And August: Osage County, with its ensemble star cast, offers an especially rich package. The film’s Julia Roberts and especially Meryl Streep are frontrunners for awards recognition but glow in the remote, dusty Osage County, Oklahoma setting with immeasurable help from a strong supporting cast.

Whether the film, directed by John Wells (TV’s “ER” and “The West Wing” and the shamefully underappreciated The Company Men), gets the awards attention it deserves, discriminating audiences will easily pick up the scent of quality and follow that to theatres.

The film is about an American family, but there are no hints of the Nelsons, Huxtables or Cleavers here. Much like a biopic of the royals, August: Osage County would benefit from a family tree. The blood connections and individual dilemmas inform the plot, most of which unfolds in decaying matriarch Violet’s lived-in home on what looks like a vacated farmstead. If indeed this is August, forget T.S. Eliot’s notion of April as the cruelest month. August wins, as all the angst, anger and emotional storms that ensue here make clear.

The film’s precipitating crisis is the sudden disappearance of the less than august alcoholic Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard), a onetime poet and author trapped in a loveless marriage to Violet (Streep), with whom he shares the depressing family manse. No housemate anyone would want, she’s a foul-mouthed, scary-looking gorgon who suffers from an apparently inoperable cancer that does not interfere with her compulsive smoking, drinking, pill-popping, and obscene verbal salvos no matter the convenient target. But Violet is a monster not to be readily slain, as she is closest to Beverly’s will and who in the family inherits what.

When soon after it’s revealed that Beverly has committed suicide in a nearby lake, the extended family convenes at the Weston home. Most significant are the three very different daughters, especially Colorado-based Barbara (Julia Roberts), the brightest and strongest. Her marriage to the decent Bill Fordham (Ewan McGregor) is falling apart and further pressure comes from daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin), especially impressionable and vulnerable at a crossroads in her young life.

Unmarried sister Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), not the dating kind, is the sweetest in the Weston sorority but she harbors a secret romance that will later sting the entire family. Karen Weston (Juliette Lewis), the wildest and least bright of the siblings, is also single but on the brink of marrying Steve (Dermot Mulroney), a handsome Florida sleazeball who probably changes women as often as he changes jobs and betrays his seamier side as the family gathering unfolds.

Violet’s sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale) seems best bet for one of the saner, most honorable family members until a later revelation. She’s married to good old boy Charles Aiken (Chris Cooper), a macho easy-talker. Their only child is the bullied and sensitive “Little Charles” (Benedict Cumberbatch).

As the funeral for Beverly and family meals and encounters unfold, complications and revelations mount, as does Violet’s meanness and plotting. Because she is in control of the estate, other family members must tread carefully even as Violet might incite mutiny and more personal crises distract.

Letts’ script is pungent and darkly funny, yet director Wells manages a balance that never undermines the story’s potentially tragic elements. Performances, especially Streep’s as the hellish-looking, fire-breathing Violet, are remarkable.

There are a few quibbles: Beverly's suicidal exit from the house is an important turn that isn't really dramatized. And the next-to-last scene would have been a more satisfying ending than the film’s sunny, anti-climactic coda.