With Meryl Streep, Dermot Mulroney, Julia Roberts, Chris Cooper, Margo Martindale. Written by Tracy Letts. Directed by John Wells. Rated R for language including sexual references, and for drug material. 121 minutes.
AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY gives us a sensational cast stranded in a lead-footed drama about a dysfunctional family coming together and airing their dirty laundry. Haven’t we seen this many times before? If we must go through this again, please give us a reason.
Adapting his award-winning play, Tracy Letts has compressed a three-hour stage drama into a two-hour movie and then been saddled with John Wells, a TV director (“E.R.,” “Shameless”) and producer (“The West Wing”) who is at a loss with what to do with the material. Instead, he falls back on the old clichés of “opening up” the play by setting several scenes outside of the house where most of the action takes place. It’s not nearly enough.
Our focus is a gathering of the Weston clan in Oklahoma, and it matriarch Violet (Meryl Streep) is a real piece of work. Her husband (Sam Shepherd) dies early in the film, setting the story in motion. She is manipulative and obnoxious, and sees herself as the life’s victim. This has made life hell for her daughters Barbara (Julia Roberts), Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), and Karen (Juliette Lewis). Her sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale) and brother-in-law (Chris Cooper) try to keep the lid on, while the other men who show up are losers. These include Barbara’s husband Bill (Ewan McGregor), Ivy’s cousin and secret love “Little Charles” (Benedict Cumberbatch), and Karen’s flashy boyfriend Steve (Dermot Mulroney). Not only are these people unpleasant, but we quickly lose interest in their self-created problems and just want to get as far away from them as possible.
Not having seen the play it’s difficult to say what its appeal at full-length on stage was, but on screen it’s simply waiting for the next fight or contrived revelation to occur. By the time Steve is hitting on Barbara’s teenage daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin) you may want to remove yourself from the theater and take a cleansing shower. The biggest revelation is so strained that one is tempted to watch the play just to see if it really worked on stage. One would like to think that the Pulitzer committee didn’t name it best drama of 2008 simply because they liked the swag they got from the publicists.
As for the movie, the only reason to endure this mess is for the performances. Meryl Streep remains the greatest actress of her generation, but even her most diehard fans might find her turn here hard to endure. Roberts is no longer the cute, young thing of “Mystic Pizza” and “Pretty Woman,” but she shows some strength and grit in a dramatic role that leaves you longing to see her working with better material.
As far as the rest of the cast, the two best performances may be by actresses who are the least known of the ensemble. Margo Martindale has a long and impressive array of credits as a character actress on television and on film (you might remember her as Hilary Swank’s self-absorbed mother in “Million Dollar Baby”), and she fleshes out Mattie Fae without chewing the scenery. Julianne Nicholson has one of those faces that you might have seen on “Law and Order: Criminal Intent,” “Boardwalk Empire” or “Masters of Sex” but can’t quite place. Like Martindale, she underplays rather than engaging in histrionics, which may be why her portrayal of Ivy is a standout as well.
This week is seeing the release of a lot “Oscar bait,” end-of-the-year releases that are going into wide release in January in the hopes that they will be showered with Oscar nominations next Thursday, January 16. “August: Osage County” just might get a few nominations for its performances, but if you’re only going to see it to handicap the awards on March 2, you might want to wait until after the nominations are announced.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His first novel, Shh! It’s A Secret: A Novel About Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide has just been released. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.