Movie review: Family is a miss in 'August: Osage County'

For the News-DemocratJanuary 9, 2014 

What It's About

With its heavyweight cast and pedigreed source material, expectations are high for "August: Osage County." Tracy Letts adapted his Pulitzer Prize-and-Tony-winning play for the film, shaving about an hour off this potent look at a fractured family and its secrets.

The Westons are a seriously dysfunctional family. When they are drawn together for a family funeral, the gloves come off. Resentments boil over, while shame, envy, pride, disappointment and manipulation flare up. Letts' dialogue pierces the heart and cuts to the quick, and the work by a near-flawless ensemble makes these people distinct and unforgettable.

The patriarch, a university professor and poet, was an alcoholic in a testy relationship with his pill-popping wife Violet (Meryl Streep), a bitter woman dealing with cancer and three distant daughters, who all have plenty of drama in their scattered lives.

Dark and disturbing, the movie shouldn't be viewed as a comedy but it is. However, the melodrama is of titanic proportions.

Performances

Meryl Streep is again fearless as a vicious addict who has pushed others away, while the rest of the cast is at the top of their game. Julia Roberts does her best work in years as the complicated oldest child whose husband (always good Ewan McGregor) is leaving her, and they have a sullen 14-year-old (grown-up Abigail Breslin).

Juliette Lewis is the flakier daughter Karen, engaged to a slick guy married several times before (Dermot Mulroney) while Julianne Nicholson is impressive as the wounded, dependable Ivy.

Both Chris Cooper and Margo Martindale are impressive as Uncle Charlie and Aunt Mattie Fay, whose unemployed son Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a source of great tension. Misty Upham is nicely affecting as the quiet Native American Johnna.

With their impeccable timing and delivery, they wield Letts' words with great precision, leaving marks.

What Works

Letts is a master of dialogue, and trimmed the play well -- all its venom and vigor are retained. Shot in Osage County in Oklahoma, the locale adds much to the setting. It seems like director John Wells was dealing with such strong forces of nature that he just got out of the way.

What Doesn't Work

The gasps that this play elicited from the audience were palpable, and the movie can't have those moments produced by great live theater. But the cast is so effective, that's a minor quibble.

It is a play of small moments and big truths, and a serious important work about family -- whether or not you like these people.

Nevertheless, most people will leave knowing that their family may have its problems, but it can't be as bad as all that they have seen.

3 1/2 stars out of 4

Director: John Wells

Starring: Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Chris Cooper, Margo Martindale, Ewan McGregor, Juliette Lewis, Julianne Nicholson, Abigail Breslin, Dermot Mulroney, Benedict Cumberbatch, Sam Shepard

Rated: R for language including sexual references, and for drug material

Length: 2:01

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