A Death in the Family: <em>August: Osage County</em> Stumbles on the Silver Screen

But the dark portrait of family dysfunction certainly has its moments

Meryl Streep, center, as Violet, the domineering Weston family matriarch.
Meryl Streep, center, as Violet, the domineering Weston family matriarch.

Like a general loaded with medals in a ticker tape parade, the Broadway play August: Osage County arrives on the screen with credentials convincing enough to impress even the most jaded skeptic: a Pulitzer Prize, a script adapted from his own play by the celebrated Tracy Letts and a high-octane cast of award-winning actors most filmmakers only dream about. The mixed result, I am sorry to report, is a gumbo from the kitchen, half-prepared—a case of too many eyes on the oven timer.

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The setting is a rambling country house in Pawhuska, Okla., in Osage County, just across the border from Kansas. This is William Inge country—dotted with invaders from Horton Foote territory—and the theme is the pain, disillusionment and hidden resentments boiling under the surface of family life in the grain belt. The Westons are a family too dysfunctional for even Inge to imagine. The occasion of their reunion is the suicide of the family patriarch, Beverly, a bitter alcoholic poet played in flashbacks by the irascible Sam Shepard.

Arriving for the funeral and overnight layover that follows is a veritable menagerie of misery: 10 family members and guests, each with a secret to hide, hosted and tortured by the Weston matriarch, Violet (Meryl Streep), a poisonous, domineering cobra woman dying of throat cancer and reduced to the state of a belligerent, pill-popping neurotic. One look at this powerful chameleon of an actress, shockingly pallid and wrinkled, with sagging jowls and hair falling out of her head from chemo, and you know who the scene-stealing center-stage show-off is going to be.

Then there are the three daughters immersed in lifelong love-hate relationships with Mom. Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) is the quiet one who lives in the same town and never married. Karen (Juliette Lewis) has survived endless love affairs with a long line of boyfriends, the latest of which is a weak-willed, philandering loser she drags along for the ride, expertly played by a wasted Dermot Mulroney. But the mother’s strongest adversary is Barbara (Julia Roberts, stripped of all glamour and acting her head off), who has family problems of her own with a husband (Ewan McGregor) who is walking out on their marriage and a 14-year-old daughter (Abigail Breslin) who can’t wait to leave home with him. Then there’s Violet’s raucous, gregarious, wise-cracking sister, Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale), her anguished, henpecked husband, Charlie (Chris Cooper), and their brow-beaten, cowering son, Charles Jr. (England’s Benedict Cumberbatch, again miscast and trying on a Southern accent for size), who is having a clandestine affair with his lonely cousin, Ivy.

As the long and grueling night envelops the house like a clammy fog, emotional childhood scars are slowly revisited, sibling resentments surface, and Violet insults them all. Watching everyone scratch, scream and fight back in a barrage of histrionics guarantees nonstop acting that makes up for the film’s generally flagging pace.

Ms. Streep’s rude, vulgar, self-centered, mean-spirited, chain-smoking matriarch is a spectacle to behold, at the expense of everyone around her. Mr. Letts tries to give everyone an equal chance to gain equal footage with gut-spilling details of their own: Barbara is hard as nails and a reflection of her mother, whether she likes it or not; Karen has a brain soft as grits; and her fiancé triggers violence when he tries to seduce Barbara’s underage daughter with a joint.

One by one, the secrets come out of their shadows, and vivid cinematography illuminates every corner of the old house in the plains, even in the dark. But as the sunrise peeks through the lace curtains, signaling the hope of a new day, the dark side gets even darker. This is as it should be, and the final curtain left the theater audience devastated. In an ill-advised attempt to lighten up the tension for the movie, somebody has tacked on a sunny and disruptive new ending that purists who loved the play will heartily and understandably denounce.

The movie begs for stronger direction than TV producer John Wells (The West Wing) can capably deliver. He seems to be so overwhelmed by the assembled talent that sometimes he surrenders control completely, and his use of cutaways and close-ups compromises the essence of the collaborative process. August: Osage County is supposed to be an ensemble piece, but let it be said—with great reluctance—that Meryl Streep throws the film off-balance. With her at the head of the dinner table, it’s hard to focus on anyone else. No question she knows all about acting, but in this film, she does too much of it. Trying vainly to keep up with her, the other actors come off like they’re overacting, too.

This is a story about people bonded by blood but doing what they must to destroy each other—partly out of fear and panic, but also out of twisted love. The more they reveal about themselves, and each other, the more they come to realize how they don’t know each other at all. In the stifling angst of an unbearable Oklahoma August, they merely occupy the same space in a house of strangers. The brilliant screenplay by Mr. Letts sets up the narrative story of the Weston clan in a carefully constructed series of episodes in which the family history is finally revealed. There’s great acting in every frame, but by the end of the ordeal, the viewer may be too exhausted to care.

WRITTEN BY Tracy Letts
STARRING Meryl Streep, Dermot Mulroney and Julia Roberts

A Death in the Family: <em>August: Osage County</em> Stumbles on the Silver Screen