Claire Folger

The family in “August: Osage County” is played in part by, from left, Julia Roberts, Meryl Streep and Julianne Nicholson.

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Movie review: 'August: Osage County' a flawed but invigorating melodrama

Published: Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014 - 10:00 am
Last Modified: Sunday, Jan. 26, 2014 - 11:43 am

Offering heavily flawed but sometimes highly invigorating melodrama, “August: Osage County” is a hootenanny of an Oklahoma-set showcase for Meryl Streep’s and Julia Roberts’ capital-A acting.

Directed by TV veteran John Wells (“ER”) and adapted by Tracy Letts from his own play, “August” incorporates elements of “King Lear” (except none of the daughters wants the estate), “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (except Streep’s academic’s wife is meaner than Elizabeth Taylor’s) and the Maury Povich show (no exceptions).

Is it awards-worthy? No. But it’s often exciting, the kind of strenuously acted movie that blows the cobwebs off the viewing experience after all those more carefully modulated awards-season dramas.

It’s escapist fare, but for viewers who prefer character studies to action. The violence in “August” is mostly verbal or limited to figurative knife-twisting among relatives who know each others’ weak spots.

I never saw Letts’ play, but I imagine it differed from this movie, since it won a Pulitzer Prize. Or maybe it’s the medium that changed things.

The electricity of live performance probably lent urgency to plot developments that on screen read as devices. Revealing these developments gives too much away, but they veer into the soap-operatic and the lurid.

But such material is a gift for movie lovers who want to see Meryl Streep really go to town. Streep appears to relish every misdeed committed by her character, Violet Weston, an inveterate pill popper and daughter taunter. Her performance has everything but subtlety.

Streep masters the soft cadences of an Oklahoma accent but hardens on all other fronts as Violet witheringly assesses family members gathered in her rural Oklahoma home after her alcoholic, retired-professor husband, Beverly (Sam Shepard), goes missing. His body later is found, his death an apparent suicide.

Violet is a whirlwind of dysfunction, needy but angry that she needs. She thanks her family members for their support by chastising the men for failing to wear a coat and tie to dinner in her suffocatingly hot house. (Violet eschews air conditioning and likes the windows closed – preferences that, given the omission of an explanation by Letts, we’ll attribute to sadism.) When she sees the men in shirtsleeves, she cracks that she hadn’t realized she was at a cockfight.

She push-pulls eldest daughter Barb (Roberts), who has arrived from Colorado with her estranged husband (Ewan MacGregor) and daughter (Abigail Breslin). Barb is the favorite, a status nobody wants in the Weston household, since it means more time in the spotlight.

The Violet-Barb dynamic is written as important, but Streep sells it further with Violet’s reaction to Barb’s arrival. Streep visibly brightens in Roberts’ presence. Violet clearly loves Barb to pieces. But she’s ill-equipped to handle all that feeling, so she starts a fight, telling Barb she broke Beverly’s heart when she left Oklahoma.

It’s pure manipulation, and Roberts’ rigid reaction tells us Barb recognizes it as such. But it’s much easier to dismiss familial pathology at the start of a long visit – when one still is buffered from time away – than in the middle of it.

Barb eventually will fight back, proving herself a chip off the ol’ block in her ability to launch verbal missiles. But unlike Violet, she always maintains a modicum of control.

The Streep-Roberts acting-offs evoke a porcupine hitting a brick wall, regrouping and then heading for the wall again. Streep is all outward, as Violet arms herself with reminders that she had it much worse growing up than her spoiled daughters (Julianne Nicholson and Juliette Lewis play the other Weston girls), and with a pure, aching desperation to be loved despite her aggressive behavior.

Roberts is an immovable force of coldness born from experience. Barb’s outbursts carry no passion, only anger and resentment at being drawn into her mother’s quagmire again. Roberts plays Barb as if she’s seen enough messy emotion for a lifetime and wants no more. It’s Roberts working at the tip-top of her post-“Erin Brockovich” game.

“Brockovich” marked the last time Roberts seemed willing to share herself fully with movie audiences. I do not know why, but since then, Roberts has been more guarded on screen. But the guardedness suits the emotionally armored Barb, making this her most satisfying performance of her second act.

Sometimes their scenes play more as Streep vs. Roberts than Violet vs. Barb. Each actress calls too much attention to her acting at times – Roberts when she’s too stony and Streep when she needs to step off the gas but doesn’t.

This doesn’t make “August” less watchable, but it, along with the script’s more ridiculous revelations, prohibit full involvement with the story.

Always engaging are Nicholson and Lewis as Ivy and Karen Weston. The understated Ivy, who stayed close to home, lacks Barb’s steel. But Nicholson fills her with compassion and a desire to keep her life from slipping into defeat, even though growing up with Violet twisted her as well.

Karen, an aging good-time girl made willfully ditzy by Lewis, escaped by moving to Florida and tries to escape mentally when back in Oklahoma by ignoring all signs of unpleasantness. Like her father’s suicide.

Margo Martindale and Chris Cooper are salt-of-the-earth delights as Violet’s sister, Mattie Fae, and her husband, Charlie. The actors bring great affection and playfulness to this longtime couple, though Mattie Fae is fighting a mean streak similar to her sister’s.

Englishman Benedict Cumberbatch is sweetly believable as Mattie Fae’s and Charlie’s immature son, but Scotsman Ewan MacGregor brings a generic quality to Barb’s philandering husband. MacGregor often comes across as bland when trying to wrestle his Scottish accent into an American one. Perhaps he should go with Sean Connery’s constant half burr.

Wells shot “August” on location in Oklahoma, and includes images of farm fields and dirt roads that give the movie a greater sense of place than a stage production could. But “August” also contains a dinner-table scene that lasts at least half an hour. The movie can seem stifling and confined even when no one’s complaining about the heat.


Call The Bee’s Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.

Read more articles by Carla Meyer



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