When a movie is based on a celebrated play, the first question to ask is, Does it play? In the case of August: Osage County, an adaptation of Tracy Letts’ 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama about an Oklahoma family marinating in its own miserabilism, the answer is yes. The fights, insults, and sadistic parent-child mind games, the powerhouse acting that shades into overacting (though I’ll be damned if you could say exactly when)…the movie is red meat for anyone who thrives on a certain brand of punchy, in-your-face emotional shock value. Yet the pull of what happens on screen came, for me, with a major qualification: I went with it, but I didn’t totally buy it. The film is a contraption that spreads its darkness like whipped butter on a roll.
There’s no denying the raging force with which Meryl Streep tears into the role of Violet Weston, a Great Plains matriarch who specializes in tormenting the people around her. Violet, who uses her words like weapons, is suffering from mouth cancer (which is both a metaphor and a punchline), and she’s so drugged up on pharmaceuticals that it’s hard to say where the medicine leaves off and the self-medicating begins. When her literary lush of a husband, Beverly (Sam Shepard), disappears, the couple’s three grown daughters return home, and the intrafamilial battling erupts. Violet is a potent character, but she’s also a showy assemblage of previous characters: the addict mother from Long Day’s Journey Into Night meets the genteel destroyer from The Glass Menagerie meets the pathological truth-teller from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? meets Mommie Dearest. The way Streep plays her, Violet is a monster unrestrained by compassion.
This means the talons are out for Barbara (Julia Roberts), her oldest and strongest daughter, who arrives with her own 14-year-old daughter (Abigail Breslin) and the unfaithful husband (Ewan McGregor) she’s just separated from. Barbara tries to push back with decency, but the lust to fight, and to fight dirty, is in her blood. Roberts has never given a performance driven by this kind of neurotic charge, and she’s luminous in her anger. Yet the movie’s dark revelations pile up with a little too much clockwork relentlessness. Its centerpiece is an extended dinner-table scene that Violet escalates from viciousness to all-out war. As verbal machine-gun theater, it’s marvelously sustained, but it also feels like a meticulously staged catharsis. It may be that the stage (where it was three and a half hours long) was a more perfect home for August: Osage County’s orgy of sprawling but hermetic dysfunction. On screen, it’s closer to Steel Magnolias done with Venus flytraps. B