This wasn’t supposed to happen. August: Osage County features Meryl Streep lording it over a fractious family as a red-eyed, pill-popping, malicious, cancer-stricken, Eric Clapton-loving matriarch with a black wig that looks a small dog flopped onto her head. But somehow Julia Roberts ends up being the one who sticks with you. She doesn’t do it by trying to reinvent herself. This character is in the same ballpark with the other flinty types Roberts has specialized in over the years. But what makes her stand out from the lesser films that Roberts has wasted most of her time on is her desire to push the limits of unlikeability. During an explosive family dinner scene that violently jerks into a half-thought-out intervention, Barbara Weston (Roberts) turns on her suddenly terrified mother Violet (Streep) like an unleashed animal, bellowing at her and everyone else within a half-mile radius, “I’m in charge now.” It’s more an admission of doom than triumphant declaration.
Barbara has come back to the roomy two-story Weston manse on the Oklahoma prairie after her father Beverly (Sam Shepard) goes missing. Over a day or two, the rest of the family drifts in to do what many families do: eat, drink, argue, issue recriminations. There’s not much to do once they come piling in the door except complain about the heat and provide targets for Violet to snipe at. Barbara is estranged from her husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) and not making any headway with her daughter (Abigail Breslin). Her sister Karen can best be described as Juliette Lewis; fortunately she’s played by Lewis, so that makes things easier. Julianne Nicholson plays the quieter sister Ivy, the one who stayed behind to take care of Beverly after the rest of them took off to get away from the darkness. Violet’s sister Mattie (Margo Martindale) and her husband Charles (Chris Cooper), as a dangerously mismatched yet inscrutably happy pair, are there seemingly to provide ballast to all the lopsided intra-family combat. Violet rules the roost, doing her best to drive everybody away from the house while lacerating them for leaving.
The time frame is short, but it’s a busy story to get through, with secret romances and addictions to bring into the light, along with so many family skeletons that they begin to crowd out the living. Almost as soon as the Weston family returns home, various members are exploding back out again into the world, gasping air greedily until the next time they have to return. The only constant is Violet’s acid tongue and the quiet Cheyenne woman (a steady Misty Upham) Beverly hired as her live-in help before disappearing.
August: Osage County is a crowded film, perhaps a little too much so. The 2007 play by Tracey Letts was a big and exquisitely verbal family drama that packed a lot into its three and a half hours. Its rough-and-tumble language recalled the best of Eugene O’Neill, with some of the close-quarter relationship combat of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Not for nothing, Letts starred in the 50th anniversary Broadway revival of that play.)
The version that director John Wells crafted in time for this year’s awards season comes stocked with fine performers and just about all the play’s major story beats intact. (Letts adapted the play himself.) Wells is from TV and it shows, in ways both good and bad. There is a flat brightness to much of the cinematography that doesn’t jibe with the material’s gothic-with-a-grin sensibility. He also tacks on a bright, pointless coda that diminishes the familial devastation the entire story has been building towards. As Wells showed in Company Men, he has a keen ability to throw talented ensembles together and give them room to play without getting self-indulgent. There are brightly memorable performances everywhere you look, from Martindale’s chipper cynicism to Cooper’s good-natured weariness. Streep’s ability to work the tragic and comic scales remains impressive.
But while Violet is the centerpiece of the stage play, Wells’ clipped version bends more towards Barbara as the focus of drama. Robert is easily up to the task. Her hair gone slightly to gray and her eyes bright and stabbing, she twists adroitly from comedy to rage without missing a beat. For her Barbara, it’s almost as though these are all the same emotion. It’s all just dancing on the edge of the grave.