Movie review: 'August: Osage County' feeds on family turmoil

Who's Afraid of Meryl Streep?

Her three daughters -- and everybody else -- in "August: Osage County," the intense film version of Tracy Letts' 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning play.

Welcome to Pawhuska, Okla., home of the Westons -- the Sooner state's most flamboyantly dysfunctional family. We are about to enter their twilight zone of strong-willed women, with no Rod Serling to guide us: Matriarch Violet (Meryl Streep) takes massive quantities of drugs for her painful mouth cancer, cursing and staggering around the house in a fog while her writer-husband, Beverly (Sam Shepard), dulls his own pain with booze. (He tried AA -- turning his life over to the higher power -- but it got in the way of his drinking.)

'August: Osage County'

Starring: Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Chris Cooper.

Rating: R for language, sexual references and drug material.

Suddenly, Bev vanishes. Where'd he go? Who's going to take care of Violet in his absence?

This crisis requires the reluctant return of their three daughters to those Oklahoma hills where they were born -- sans Woody Guthrie nostalgia. High-strung Barbara (Julia Roberts), her estranged husband, Bill (Ewan McGregor), and their sullen 14-year-old daughter, Jean, (Abigail Breslin), come in from Boulder, Colo. Violet immediately attacks her for past abandonment. Mousey, low-key Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) fares no better for having stayed closer to her mother, who badgers her for not dolling up and getting a man in her life:

"The only woman who didn't need makeup was Elizabeth Taylor, and she wore a TON of it," Vi declares -- in Liz's braying Martha voice from "Virginia Woolf."

Violet, essentially, is Martha gone to seed with a terminal illness. Not a pretty picture. Not pretty, either, is her overweight sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale), who shows up with her sweet husband, Charlie (Chris Cooper), and a cake to help out. Their timid son, "Little Charles" (Benedict Cumberbatch) -- always on the verge of tears and an inappropriate confession -- comes later.

So, finally, does third daughter Karen (Juliette Lewis) with her fiance, Steve (Dermot Mulroney), in a red Ferrari from Florida. Karen motor-mouths on and on about their wedding plans, while Steve gets a little too interested in teenager Jean.

The film's best scene is a family-dinner disaster that begins with Charlie's hilariously long, drawn-out grace and morphs into the collective mocking of young Jean's vegan beliefs ("You ingest the animal's fear"). One thing these folks can all share and enjoy is ganging up on another one of their members! In "Virginia Woolf," it was called "Get the Guest." Here, it's "Get the Relative" -- and everybody's gonna get it, sooner or later, led by the angry drug-addled matriarch: Only a moment (and a consonant) separates Violet from violent, and flaunting her pill addiction finally provokes an epic physical battle with Barbara that is glorious to behold.

With her hideous red eyes, dark circles, chemo-thinned concentration-camp-style hair, chain-smoking in a filthy sweatshirt, this is a breathtakingly different role for 17-time Oscar nominee Streep, who even manages -- no, chooses! -- to perform behind sunglasses for certain key scenes. How hard is it to act without your eyes? Very hard, for all but Ms. Streep.

Ms. Roberts is no less impressive in an equally shrill, dislikable role against her romantic type, still impossibly gorgeous even in mismatched pajamas and robe while delivering potty-mouth rants against her own daughter.

She and her sisters -- like we, the audience -- are mesmerized by Ms. Streep's drunken freakouts. So is director John Wells ("The Company Men"), who lets her go, uncontrolled, with some of the most venomous verbiage in the history of histrionics, knowing she's like some comet or celestial event to be seen, whether or not believed. The woman is incapable of giving a boring performance -- which is not to say those performances always salvage the films (like "Prairie Home Companion") they adorn.

In this one, a truly wonderful Ms. Martindale steals the show. Runner-up is Juliette Lewis as clueless Karen: "We're going to Belize on our honeymoon! Doesn't that sound nice?"

Belize always sounds nice -- but somehow never turns out to be as nice as it sounds.

"August: Osage County" references T.S. Eliot's lament of the emptiness of modern life, and actor-writer Shepard's idea of the demise of the American dream -- firmly situated in the long American literary tradition of family angst, symbiotic love/hate and the kind of secret demons found in Hellman's "Little Foxes," Albee's "Virginia Woolf" and O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey Into Night."

How children transform into their parents -- with the grim responsibility of caring for them -- is an endlessly sorrowful mystery, full of wounded victims and survivors. This rendering of it showcases acting over narrative, with only a superficial sense of Oklahoma. (There's beauty there, but you have to look for it.) In the end, it's more exhausting than cathartic.

"Hilarious!" the movie-page advertisement describes it. I think not. The black-comic element includes funny moments and aspects of the characterizations. But overall, if this is a comedy, "Blazing Saddles" is a tragedy.

Caveat emptor.

Post-Gazette film critic emeritus Barry Paris:

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