August: Osage County
★★★★ (out of 5 stars)
There’s no cat, and the roof may not be made of tin, but it’s plenty hot thanks to Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts. In fact, the entire cast and crew of director John Wells’ adaptation of Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play August: Osage County seem to be channeling Tennessee Williams, although not with quite the flair or originality that Paul Newman, Elizabeth Taylor and Burl Ives did in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof back in 1958.
Streep is Violet Weston, the vindictive, cancer-ridden, pill-popping matriarch of an extended family in Oklahoma. When her husband, Beverly (Sam Shepard), mysteriously vanishes – or so we are led to believe – the family reluctantly rallies around Violet. Julia Roberts is Barbara, the most stubborn and honest of Violet’s three daughters, and although the film is packed with interesting and intricate subplots, it’s the relationship between Violet and Barbara that drives it.
The turning point in that relationship is a formal dinner that is the film’s centerpiece and takes up virtually the entire second act of the play. The meal starts with coat-and-tie formalities, then progresses to Violet’s proclamation that she is “just truth-telling,” and finally degenerates into physicality. After that, all pretenses of decorum between mother and daughter vanish, illustrated both tragically and comically with Barbara’s rant to Violet: “Eat your fish, bitch. Eat the fucking fish.”
Streep is her usual brilliant self, though less subtle than usual, and Roberts has never been better. To top that off, the supporting cast is a playwright’s dream: Ewan McGregor, Benedict Cumberbatch, Juliette Lewis, Dermot Mulroney, Julianne Nicholson, Misty Upham and Abigail Breslin. But it’s Margo Martindale as Violet’s sister and Chris Cooper as her brother-in-law who stand out.
When Cooper, whose character is a calm and steady influence in the film’s first half, finally breaks down and tells his wife he’ll “throw [her] Irish ass out into the street” if she doesn’t treat their son (Cumberbatch) with more respect, it works because everything he’s done until that point has worked. It’s “excess within control,” as Christopher Plummer so memorably coached Jane Seymour in Somewhere in Time. And it’s advice that Martin Scorsese, to a small degree, and Paul Schrader, to an extraordinary extent, should have taken before tackling the overrated The Wolf of Wall Street and the abysmal The Canyons, respectively, last year.
Not all of August’s familial confrontations are entirely effective. Some feel forced and undoubtedly worked better in a three-act structure on stage, in a medium that is often more forgiving toward romanticism and melodrama. On film, the endless fights and revelations sometimes smack of contrivance, and at the end of the dinner scene – though you enjoyed the acting smorgasbord – you’re just a tad too full. But those faults are forgiven, if only because the digestive process is so deliciously rewarding.
“I can’t perpetuate these myths of family,” Ivy, Violet’s middle daughter (Nicholson), proclaims. And neither can the film, as it lays bare a lifetime of pain and repression during just a single summer month in Osage County.