Offering heavily flawed but sometimes highly invigorating melodrama, August: Osage County is a hootenanny of an Oklahoma-set showcase for Meryl Streeps 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), Whos Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (except Streeps academics wife is meaner than Elizabeth Taylors) and the Maury Povich show (no exceptions).
Is it awards-worthy? No. But its 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.
Its 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 its 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, well attribute to sadism.) When she sees the men in shirtsleeves, she cracks that she hadnt 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 Violets reaction to Barbs arrival. Streep visibly brightens in Roberts presence. Violet clearly loves Barb to pieces. But shes ill-equipped to handle all that feeling, so she starts a fight, telling Barb she broke Beverlys heart when she left Oklahoma.
Its pure manipulation, and Roberts rigid reaction tells us Barb recognizes it as such. But its 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. Barbs outbursts carry no passion, only anger and resentment at being drawn into her mothers quagmire again. Roberts plays Barb as if shes seen enough messy emotion for a lifetime and wants no more. Its 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 shes too stony and Streep when she needs to step off the gas but doesnt.
This doesnt make August less watchable, but it, along with the scripts 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 Barbs 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 fathers suicide.
Margo Martindale and Chris Cooper are salt-of-the-earth delights as Violets 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 sisters.
Englishman Benedict Cumberbatch is sweetly believable as Mattie Faes and Charlies immature son, but Scotsman Ewan MacGregor brings a generic quality to Barbs 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 Connerys 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 ones complaining about the heat.
Call The Bees Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.