August: Osage County is one of those movies you leave amazed at the performers’ collective ability to ingest ginormous chunks of dialogue and spit it out like so many verbal tacks. Then you remember that it was, initially, a ballyhooed theater production (by Tracy Letts), and you begin to dissect the many ways in which the movie, directed by John Wells, never really lifts itself off the boards and into cinematic “reality.” It is nothing if not a verbally engorged stage show, only instead of trying to view what was a complex stage setting on Broadway you get a much better view of a stifling Oklahoma summer and the vicious, warring factions which make up the Weston family. Nevertheless, as an experience, it still feels oppressively small and headache-inducing.
Following the disappearance of patriarch Bev Weston (Sam Shepard), the family descends upon the home front, where Vi (Meryl Streep), dying of mouth cancer and bitter to boot, reigns over the dining room table like a demonic cross between a Borgia, Mommy Dearest and Albee’s Martha. When her daughter Barb (Julia Roberts) objects to a particularly nasty riposte, Vi defends herself, telling everybody she’s merely “truth telling.” While some of Vi’s jabs hit their mark, particularly when she skewers the romantic illusions of her daughter Karen (Juliette Lewis), whose arm candy is a thrice-divorced lothario (Dermot Mulroney, appropriately shady), others, such as her mean-spirited analysis of another daughter, the drab and dutiful Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), convey just to what lengths the matriarch will go to sting before feeling anything remotely like hurt or remorse. Rounding out the reunion are Barb’s estranged academe husband Bill (Ewan McGregor, wasted), her daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin), Bev’s brother Charlie (Chris Cooper), and Charlie’s wife Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale) and son Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch). Each is hoisted upon Vi’s petard, resulting at times in actual fisticuffs, of a more genteel, Midwestern, family sort.
For the most part, Wells just allows his players to do their bit, and to be sure, there are strong performances throughout. Ultimately, the film’s central focus is the running tension between Vi and Barb, who had once been a writer and now lays in bed, wondering if Bill will ever return to her. At first, Barb seems the rational one, who can observe everything that’s happening and respond with cool wisdom, but eventually we see how she may be more similar to Vi than she’d ever want to admit, or for anybody to know. For anyone who has experienced a dysfunctional family, Barb’s ability to relate to the individuals and empathize with their torments, while frantically hoping she’s worlds apart, is keenly felt and beautifully, straightforwardly delivered by Roberts, whose understated performance far outshadows Streep’s much flashier one.
The movie is not without its false notes, besides those which relate to the sheer staginess of the production; the insertion of an all-knowing, long-suffering Native American caregiver is a belabored, PC jab at the falsity of white bourgeoisie pretense, and a new ending—presumably tacked on to acquiesce audiences bombarded by verbiage but hoping for a Christmas miracle—rings phony.