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Streep and Roberts shine in 'August: Osage County' despite the film's flaws

Playwright Tracy Letts garnered a Pulitzer Prize for “August: Osage County,” which first hit Broadway in 2007 with actress Deanna Dunagan in the lead role of Violet, the 65-year-old, boozing, pill-popping, cancer-stricken, sharp-tongued matriarch of the Weston family. Estelle Parsons later morphed into the role on tour and did a superb job with it. On stage, the spectacle unfolded into a brilliant, three-act odyssey of dysfunctional family dynamics and the emotional quicksand from which people struggle to be freed.

Ladies of the hour: Streep (center) rules the roost in August: Osage County
The Weinstein Company

The much-anticipated film version directed by John Wells (The Company of Men) mirrors the play and benefits from a screen adaptation from Letts himself—nobody knows the material better, after all. It also casts Meryl Streep in the lead role of Violet and within the first 20 seconds Streep is on screen, you realize that the woman will, in fact, garner another Oscar nom for her performance—she’s already nabbed SAG and Golden Globe nominations. Let’s fact it: Nobody can lose herself in a role like Streep can and here, she reminds us of that yet again here.

Fortunately, Streep is in good company. August boasts one of the finest all-star casts to hit the screen in years—Julia Roberts, Sam Shepard, Chris Cooper, Ewan McGregor, Dermot Mulroney, Juliette Lewis, Abigail Breslin, Benedict Cumberbatch, Julianne Nicholson and Margo Martindale (who, really, should avoid poorly executed TV sitcoms—The Millers—henceforth because she’s simply too brilliant to lend her talents there.)

Set in rural Oklahoma, the film chronicles the plight of the Weston family, who all gather after the disappearance of the family patriarch, Beverly (Cooper). Distraught and shaken by this, matriarch Violet, who also suffers from cancer of the mouth, still manages to find the chutzpah to verbally decimate anybody crossing her path—and often quite poetically. It’s an art, and Violet has mastered it. She knows your weak spots and fancifully enjoys going in for the kill. As she’s rallied the clan together for support, you get the feeling she relishes the fertile breeding ground suddenly offered to her—what a better way to allow the family’s many unresolved emotional issues to play themselves out. There are sisters (Roberts, Lewis and a noteworthy Nicholson), a plucky aunt (Martindale), the aunt’s hubby (Cooper) and son (Cumberbatch), among others. And everyone, aside from Cooper’s character it seems, holds onto some family resentment. The best verbal boxing matches occur between Streep and Roberts. Pitted together, the women give us one of the more unique mother-daughter relationships to hit the screen in some time. It isn't quite Terms of Endearment, but watching them unload their dramas is a rare theatrical feat.

But direction and screenwriting, as prolific and layered as it is at times, collide with each other far too often in this big screen outing to produce the most effective result: To evoke a genuine, lingering empathy for the characters and feel moved by their journey, however sour it turns.

As a director, Wells seems to have taken a kind of hands-off approach, freeing the creative reigns on his actors far too often. It’s most notable with Streep. Divine as she is as acerbic Violet, a little restraint would have made a significant difference. That Roberts holds her own and manages to turn in one of the best performances of her career is more of a testament to her as an actress than, say, Wells, as a director.

As a result, there’s a tendency to feel continually assaulted by the dysfunction in this big screen version rather than be moved by it to the degree that some compassion kicks in. It’s a subtle yet significant fault and has a tendency to weigh down what, overall, is a memorable tour de force packed to the brim with some fine performances. But if you can recall for a moment the way you may have felt experiencing the film Magnolia—or Rachel Getting Married, Margot at the Wedding or even Ordinary People. If can remember how those films managed to work themselves into your psyche and keep you interested and invested in their characters—and to relate to them in some degree—you realize that that kind of feeling is missing from August.

The pace of Letts’ brilliant play allowed for an emotional storm to build upon itself—and those fearing this may sway them against seeing "August" on stage, please reconsider. The film version feels more like a creative hurricane. It can be entertaining, sure, but too often it smacks of a latter day Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? .... which, like it’s lead, Violet, just doesn’t know when (or how) to let go.

AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY
★ ★1/2 (out of four)
With Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Sam Shepard, Chris Cooper, Ewan McGregor, Dermot Mulroney, Abigail Breslin, Benedict Cumberbatch, Julianne Nicholson. Juliette Lewis and Margo Martindale. Written by Tracy Letts. Directed by John Wells. Rated R. 121 minutes.