Niagara Gazette — Where would the movies be without Meryl Streep? She is our greatest living film actress. Streep is the best thing about “August: Osage County,” the main reason to see it.
The movie begins with Sam Shepard talking about his family, including his wife Violet. He establishes immediately the dark shadow that has descended on his home in the northeastern Oklahoma hinterlands. “My wife takes pills,” he says, “and I drink.”
Shepard plays a morose Beverly Weston, a successful poet, who is preparing himself for his final act. It must have been difficult being a male growing up with the name Beverly, but by the time his family’s anger and vitriol settles in, the fact that he has an unusual first name will seem like child’s play.
Violet is played with a wicked, albeit delicious, cruelty by Streep, as if she realized that the movie’s twin themes of loss and regret had to be made more alive to energize the audience. When she arrives on the screen, her steps are faltering, she seems bone tired, and her hair is gray and ragged. She has throat cancer. Very shortly, her husband will kill himself. He chooses to drown in a nearby lake. Perhaps he thought the water would wash away the sins that haunt the Weston family. They all seem successful and comfortable, but something deeper is amiss. Something more intangible. Something that makes them a very nasty group of mourners. Or maybe they just never really liked each other.
Beverly’s suicide sets in motion a familiar story. A family gathers to reminisce about the dearly departed, although with this crowd, “dearly” may not be the proper word. After the memorial service is over, the key family members go to the homestead for a meal. Violet has covered her thinning hair with a curly black wig. She is joined by an assemblage of characters straight out of Theater Drama 101.
The original play by Tracy Letts (a man by the way; Tracy/Beverly) won a Pulitzer Prize and five Broadway Tony Awards, including best play. What probably worked well on stage, people gathered in a house filled with building tension as they erupt in anger and are cracking for a chance to rip each other apart, feels manufactured in the movie. I never believed they were members of one family. You get the sense that the various performers showed up on the set and didn’t get to know each other. Blame director John Wells for that. Letts wrote the choppy screenplay, removing an hour from his three-hour drama. The movie material rings false.
Almost everyone will participate in the bickering. There will be rare moments of togetherness, but the seething cauldron of hate that simmers below the surface will eventually explode. Dinner plates will be broken. Tears will flow. And there will be a poorly-staged fight between two women that ends with them thrashing on the floor. Dysfunction thy name is Weston. But all of this is a prelude to the big revelation. I won’t tell you what it is, but it’s a weak attempt at raising the dramatic bar. The secret is not something as mundane as adultery and divorce. This gang would find that too phony.
As I watched the movie, I thought rather quickly that I was watching performers playing a game of “can you top this?” Nostalgia is kicked aside with sarcasm. Withering looks telegraph disgust. It doesn’t help that the cast is just plain odd. This is an American melodrama, so why on earth are the equally and badly miscast Ewan McGregor and Benedict Cumberbatch in it? The former acts too passively, and the latter mopes about like a basset hound.
Violet has three daughters, played by Julia Roberts, Julianne Nicholson, and Juliette Lewis. McGregor and the Roberts are an estranged married couple. Neither smile. She was her father’s favorite daughter. Nicholson is secretly dating Cumberbatch. She’s quiet and reserved. Lewis is a brassy ditz, a clueless sort involved with a sleazy fellow played by Dermot Mulroney. Also in the fray are Margo Martindale and Chris Cooper as husband and wife. She plays Violet’s warm and fuzzy sister (at least she’d like to be thought of as warm and fuzzy). Their son is Cumberbatch. Martindale is the keeper of the big secret. The Native American cook/housekeeper, played by Misty Upham, quietly watches the madness.
Streep’s Violet eats this crowd for breakfast, lunch, and the all important dinner. She’s a vicious Great Plains tornado. She smokes, mocks, swears, slurs her words, gnaws on her fingers, and takes no prisoners. She also has a sixth sense that scatters her family like straw.
Did Beverly kill himself because he believed he was a failure at being a husband and father? Violet is contemptuous of phony memories. Streep makes you remember her venom.Michael Calleri reviews films for Night and Day. Contact him at email@example.com