All-star cast in an overstuffed ‘August: Osage County’
A 2.5-star review of the screen adaptation of Tracy Letts’ play “August: Osage County,” starring Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor and Chris Cooper.
Seattle Times movie critic
‘August: Osage County,’ with Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Abigail Breslin, Benedict Cumberbatch, Juliette Lewis, Margo Martindale, Dermot Mulroney, Julianne Nicholson, Sam Shepard, Misty Upham. Directed by John Wells, from a screenplay by Tracy Letts, based on the play by Letts. 119 minutes. Rated R for language including sexual references, and for drug material. Several theaters.
Like “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” but with a lot more people, “August: Osage County” explores a family’s secrets, lies and ability to shriek at each other; watching it, you may feel like slipping out of the room, closing the door quietly behind you. Violet Weston (Meryl Streep), after the death of her husband Beverly (Sam Shepard), gathers her clan on a hot August weekend for the funeral and a family dinner: daughters Barbara (Julia Roberts), Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) and Karen (Juliette Lewis), sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale), brother-in-law Charles (Chris Cooper), Barbara’s estranged husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) and their teenage daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin), Karen’s shady boyfriend Steve (Dermot Mulroney), and Charles and Mattie Fae’s son, a tall fellow known as Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch).
It’s a crowded room, simmering with summer heat and the steam of long-held resentments. Violet, a prescription-drug addict dying of mouth cancer, prides herself on being a truth-teller; she’s got the dirt on everyone, and thoroughly enjoys dishing it. Gradually, we learn plenty of secrets, and begin to understand why Violet’s daughters — all damaged, in different ways — became who they are.
On stage, I imagine “August: Osage County” crackles; it follows a long tradition of dysfunctional family dramas (you think not just of Edward Albee, but Eugene O’Neill and Lillian Hellman), and its long dramatic scenes should play well when pitched toward the balconies. Film, though, doesn’t hold this kind of material as well (staginess only works on stage); and this “August,” adapted by Tracy Letts from his own play, feels overstuffed and overplayed — you get tired watching it, rather than caught up in the drama, and you wonder if the actors are tired, too.
That said, this is a powerhouse cast, and they truly give it their all. Streep, letting her voice slide into a lower register, plays Violet as a cat who’s swallowed numerous bitter canaries. “Nobody’s stronger than me,” she says, and Streep makes you believe it, but it’s such a big performance it seems to eat up the rest of the movie. Martindale, snorting companionably as Mattie Fae and Violet look at family photographs, is a standout, never hitting a false note. Mulroney has fun with his sleazeball character (watch how he sneaks a bite of food before grace is said), and Roberts, whose troubled Barbara is the film’s emotional heart, tells plenty of silent stories with her pained gaze. Individually, the characters are vivid; thrown together, they’re too many ingredients in a disappointingly peppery stew.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org