It remains a mystery why the Weinstein Company moved the New York release date of “August: Osage County” from Dec. 25 to the 27th and the film’s national roll-out to January. Christmas hams rarely come this big. Or juicy, or fattening, or entertaining.
The movie, adapted by Tracy Letts from his 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning play and stolidly directed by “ER” producer John Wells, is a black comedy of prairie family dysfunction — your worst holiday dinner times 10. The Weston clan also carries a history of American theatrical DNA in its pickled veins: the soul-destroying mamas of Tennessee Williams, the secrets and lies of William Inge, the rancor of George and Martha in Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” and more than a hint of the post-frontier derangement of Sam Shepard’s plays. So, no, “August: Osage County” isn’t all that original, and sometimes it’s just a lot of yelling. But it does rouse itself to a powerful fury every so often, and Letts knows an audience’s dirty little secret: We love the bloodlust of a family feeding on itself.
Because the play’s a feast for actors, this production is overstuffed with divas and up-and-comers, established legends and scene-stealers. Right in the middle, clutching her carving knife at the head of the table, is Meryl Streep as Viola, the cancerous matriarch determined to be the last Weston standing. As Vi lays waste to her kin, so Streep lays waste to the rest of the cast; this is one of the most flamboyantly theatrical performances of the actress’s storied career. Which makes sense in terms of the character — Vi is a monster of neurotic self-regard, a woman for whom subtlety is the enemy — and yet you still feel Streep reaching deep into her bag of gimmicks: the howling, rising cadences of speech; the darting glances; the hands that seem to go every which way before heading for the jugular.
Vi is dying of mouth cancer and she isn’t going gently; she pops pills, crashes into furniture with her wig half on, and plays vintage Clapton songs at top volume. The sudden disappearance of her alcoholic, long-suffering husband, Beverly (Sam Shepard himself, too briefly seen), is the catalyst that brings the rest of the Westons home bearing casseroles and grudges. What must it be like for them to confront Vi, or for an actor to go one-on-one with Streep? Everyone seems to be standing around the cave, waiting for the bear to come out.
Ivy (Medford’s own Julianne Nicholson) is the good daughter, sticking around Oklahoma to look after her parents and coming to love her first cousin, Little Charles, who’s played by Benedict Cumberbatch as a kinder, dimmer variation on Tennessee Williams’s “no-neck monsters.” His parents, Charlie and Vi’s sister Mattie Fae, are brought to life by Chris Cooper and Margo Martindale, two wonderful performers who between them almost make up for Streep’s scenery chewing. Mattie Fae and Charlie are real, raw, flawed, and funny, and late in the going, Martindale gets a scene that makes you realize with a half-guilty start that she may be the best thing in the entire movie.
There’s a baby sister, Karen (Juliette Lewis), who dresses like a floozy, talks in self-help clichés, and comes home with a smarmy fiance (Dermot Mulroney). And there’s Barbara, the smart daughter, the one who got away before she could turn into her mother, even though the jury’s still out on that one. Barbara is played by Julia Roberts, which gives a movie fan the very rare chance to see a smack-down between two opposing forces: The Great Actress and The Great Star. One loses herself in characters, the other subsumes character into persona; one we grant respect and sometimes love, the other we love and every so often respect.
That Streep and Roberts are playing mother and daughter adds to the perverse allure of “August: Osage County,” and it brings out something flinty and welcome in the younger actress. Barbara arrives from out of state with her estranged professor husband, Bill (Ewan McGregor), and their 14-year-old daughter, Jean (Abigail Breslin), an adolescent dark cloud. Roberts made her name two decades ago with those cartoon eyes and that wide, goofball smile, but here she closes her features down until she’s a brittle strand of judgment, and you understand why Bill’s sleeping with one of his students. Yet we also see in Barbara the big-hearted girl who got out of Dodge, and her sorrow that that girl has come home in more ways than one.
The battle is most fearsomely joined in the centerpiece of “August: Osage County,” a family dinner that plays like a nightmare version of a Norman Rockwell painting. Wells doesn’t direct the scene so much as clear the arena for the main event, Vi eviscerating one relative after another with clean, sharp strokes and Barbara trying not to rise to the bait until, of course, she does. The movie, like the play, isn’t saying anything we haven’t heard before — surprise, families are power-struggles — but it knows how to put on a good fight and Streep clearly relishes the chance to play an emotional pugilist. In a way, Vi’s this movie’s Jake LaMotta, raging at phantoms and daring us not to hate her.
As brutal as her character gets, though, the movie as a whole lacks bite and direction. Wells and Letts open up the play in the traditional fashion, but whenever the action moves outdoors, you feel the script’s cleansing bile turn to sentiment. The soundtrack music gets weepy and “sensitive,” and we’re cued to expand into a forgiveness for which the play, claustrophobic as it was, had no use.
The last images of “August: Osage County” are a particular betrayal. (Spoiler alert, sort of.) Instead of staying with Vi, as the play does, in the chilling finality of her self-delusion, the film inexplicably cuts to Barbara having a moment of reflection and a rueful smile on the side of a highway. That’s a producer’s choice, not a writer’s or a director’s, and I’m guessing the chance to send audiences out gazing at a movie star and holding onto the possibility of hope (whatever that means) was irresistible to someone involved in this film’s making. Possibly someone named Weinstein. Whereas the only real truth in this story — seen onstage, it’s a vision nearly worthy of Beckett — is the sight of a mother done at last with consuming her young and staggering alone into the dark.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.