Movie review: All-star serving of Oscar bait delivers sharp-tongued melodrama

MCCLATCHY-TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICEJanuary 10, 2014 

Meryl Streep, left, holds nothing back as the brutal matriarch in “August: Osage County,” with Julianne Nicholson, center, and Juliette Lewis.

CLAIRE FOLGER — AP

  • AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY

    •• 1/2•

    Rated: R for language, including sexual references and for drug material. Starring: Meryl Streep, Dermot Mulroney, Julia Roberts, Chris Cooper, Ewan McGregor, Julianne Nicholson, Juliette Lewis. Director: John Wells. Running time: 121 minutes. Theaters: Edwards 9, Village Cinema in Meridian.

“August: Osage County” travels from the stage to the screen with much of its theatricality intact. Too much. For all the prairie panoramas and lived-in look of the big, rural Oklahoma house that is the setting, it still feels like a play — with Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts and pretty much everybody else projecting to the back row.

It has cruelty, comical cursing, “big scenes” and shocking revelations. Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tracy Letts kept it all in there and then some.

Streep tosses moderation away as the salty, testy matriarch, Violet Weston, a pill-popping cancer patient who has spoken her mean-spirited mind for so long she can’t control her tongue.

“I’m just truth-telling,” she says, laughing off the pained or furious reactions of those who feel her wrath. “Damn fine day to tell the truth.”

Violet’s illness, we’re amusingly informed, is “cancer of the mouth.”

And that “damn fine day” is the day of her husband’s funeral. We’ve met the sweetly poetic drinker Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard) in the opening scenes. We’ve seen the bigoted, bullying martinet he endures, every day. When he disappears and Violet summons her sister (Margo Martindale) and daughters (Roberts, Julianne Nicholson and Juliette Lewis), we know he’s not coming back. Death was just an extreme means of escape.

Menfolk show up, too. There’s Charlie (Chris Cooper), who has always joked away Violet’s mean streak and winked through the sarcasm it brings out in his own wife, Violet’s sister, Mattie Fae (Martindale). “Little Charlie” (Benedict Cumberbatch, showing a vulnerable side) is their clumsy, put-upon son. Dermot Mulroney is Steve, the Ferrari-driving Florida hustler who Karen (Lewis) brings home.

And college professor Bill (Ewan McGregor) may be secretly separated from Barbara (Roberts). But he’s there as moral support to his short-tempered, foul-mouthed wife and their messed-up 14-year-old daughter (Abigail Breslin).

Letts wrote wonderful, distinct characters, and the film is so well cast that you buy into this version of the Weston clan. The men are thinly drawn cliches, but the women are clever variations on a mean theme. You sense inherited bitterness in the lot of them, even when they’re smiling and drinking too much red wine.

The big, ugly moments come from Violet and her oldest. Streep and Roberts give us contrasting visions of what it means to commit to a role. Streep, pale, with chemo-thinned hair not really hidden by a wig, staggers and lurches between incoherence and unbottled rage, lashing out at Barb, the only one to really stand up to her. Roberts doesn’t let herself look as timeworn and grief-stricken as you’d expect. But she ratchets up the volume to the point where you fear violence.

Director John Wells (“The Company Men”) presides over this in a way that makes the filmed version of this toxic, caustically amusing tale a spectacle we gawk at, slack-jawed in wonder at the depth of the dysfunction.

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