Silver Screen: August: Osage County ****
Though it’s set on the plains of Oklahoma, August: Osage County conjures the spirit of Tennessee Williams’s sweaty, lurid Southern family dramas. The film opens, like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, with the characters awaiting the arrival of Big Daddy. The imposing patriarch, here played by Sam Shepard, has a little bit of Williams in himself: He’s a boozy writer whose vices have dimmed his poetry in later years.
But this Big Daddy might not be coming back. This unleashes a torrent of histrionics in his pill-popping wife Violet (Meryl Streep), although being worked up seems like her natural state. While waiting for the return of her husband, Violet calls all of her children home to help manage the crisis.
The convergence is inevitably fraught. Eldest daughter— and father’s favorite— Barbara (Julia Roberts) brings along her estranged husband (Ewan McGregor) and tempestuous teen daughter (Abigail Breslin). Barbara is the prodigal child, and her return is as much an opportunity to chastise her for leaving as a cause for celebration. Her buoyantly delusional sister Karen (Juliette Lewis) has also fled, to Florida, where she’s engaged to a thrice-married salesman (Dermot Mulroney), but the middle child’s arrivals and departures are little cause for fanfare. Youngest sister Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) stayed in Oklahoma for the thankless task of looking after her parents, and the ensuing years have left her isolated from everyone save for her hypersensitive cousin Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch).
The family reunion is a disaster before it even begins. Violet’s drug problem has worsened, but even in her addled state she’s still a formidable force, as bloodthirsty and omniscient as a raptor. Her constant criticisms— she calls it “truth tellin’”— cut deep, and she’s hunting as much for sport as sustenance. She’s most satisfied when she sends the clan into chaos by bringing up Barbara’s husband’s infidelities, clucking over Karen’s fading looks, and sneering that kindly uncle Charlie (Chris Cooper) is now the man of the house “by default.”
Of course, now that the whole family is back together, old resentments boil and secrets float to the surface—and the Weston family secrets are dark indeed, hewing closer to Greek tragedy than classic American drama.
The dysfunctional family reunion is a familiar dramatic form, but playwright and screenwriter Tracy Letts imbues it with novel intensity, thanks in large part to his scalpel-sharp dialogue. This is caustic, 180-proof stuff, blackly comic and not for the faint of heart. Letts’s characters don’t just have heated exchanges, they commit violence against one another with words. Lovers of language and fans of carefully crafted indelicacies will delight in the gleeful misanthropy. Letts’s work here is more stinging and artful than its best contemporary counterparts, the plays of Patrick Marber (Closer), Yasmina Reza (God of Carnage), and early Neil LaBute (In the Company of Men, Bash). Indeed, it’s not out of place among the pantheon of greats, like Ernest Lehman’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and the Tennessee Williams works to which it’s so indebted.
The stellar ensemble exchanges Letts’s dialogue like pro athletes passing around a ball. Streep is so talented and the role of Violet so meaty that her terrific performance is something of a foregone conclusion, which makes it no less compelling. But the most pleasant surprise is Roberts, the former titleholder of America’s Sweetheart, who remains elegant even as she wades into all the nastiness but suggests the kind of coiled darkness inside her you usually have to go on an Eat Pray Love trip to work out. She’s quietly forceful and, when called upon, matches Streep blow for blow. Similarly playing against type, the dashing, typically domineering Cumberbatch is a sympathetic mess of watery eyes and quivering lips, as though one more acerbic quip from the family might prove fatal. His interactions with Cooper and his undermining mother (Margo Martindale) make for the movie’s subtlest but most upsetting conflict.
August: Osage County is familiar in form and hyperbolic to the verge of melodrama, but for those who can gut it out, its merging of the mellifluous and malevolent is sweet savagery.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.