Nearly a dozen members of an Oklahoma family battle it out in the home of a vitriolic matriarch played by one of cinema’s finest in this comically charged melodrama. As an actors’ showcase, it excels. But as a story of pathology rippling through generations, it doesn’t congeal.
Directed by John Wells (“The Company Men”) from a screenplay by Letts (condensing his three-hour play), the film suggests a merging of Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill, Edward Albee and, with its three-sister ingredient, a bit of Chekhov, with Letts’ bent for gothic storytelling and wicked dialogue.
The setting is a home on the Oklahoma plains where the temperature outdoors is 108 and the air indoors has been stifling for decades.
“My wife takes pills and I drink,” says weathered poet Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard), who, shortly after speaking this truism, vanishes.
Medicated, venom-tongued Violet Weston (Meryl Streep), who often wears a black wig to hide the effect of the chemo she’s receiving for mouth cancer, responds to her husband’s disappearance by bringing together the members of her scattered family.
Bitter daughter Barbara (Julia Roberts) arrives with her estranged professor husband (Ewan McGregor) and disconnected 14-year-old (Abigail Breslin). Flighty Karen (Juliette Lewis) brings her sleazy beau (Dermot Mulroney).
We also meet dutiful daughter Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), and Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale) and Charles (Chris Cooper), Violet’s sister and brother-in-law. The couple have an awkward son (Benedict Cumberbatch), whom the seemingly good-natured Mattie Fae constantly belittles.
Violet’s Native American caregiver (Misty Upham), the sane outsider, completes the primary cast.
The action consists largely of Violet-Barbara power struggles and the issue of Violet’s pill addiction. Additionally, unsavory secrets surface surrounding the identity of Ivy’s secret lover.
For sure, much emoting is going on, and the cast delivers. Streep, leading the pack, is a volcano. Outrageously overstated her Violet may be, but she’s electrifying.
Roberts is particularly credible as a disappointed woman struggling to keep her nobler traits from giving way to what she may have inherited from Mom. Martindale and Cooper, too, stand out. Cooper’s Charles accounts for the film’s choicest moments when he issues a plea for decency.
Yet the talent and inspiration don’t, under Wells’ direction of Letts’ plot-heavy script, coalesce into a flowing, gripping whole. (Consider William Friedkin’s sizzling adaptations of Letts’ similarly over-the-top “Bug” and “Killer Joe.”)
And using the landscape, the Oklahoma scenery, to reflect a setting’s soul plays like one of the oldest devices around — simply juxtaposing natural grace with human nastiness.
In sum, Streep and company keep you from bailing. But don’t expect to feel transported or stirred.
August: Osage County
Starring Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Juliette Lewis, Julianne Nicholson
Written by Tracy Letts
Directed by John Wells
Running time 1 hour, 59 minutes