'August: Osage County' brings drama to family table

05:00 AM, Dec 26, 2013

Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep play daughter and mother in "August: Osage County." Claire Folger, The Weinstein Co./


Written By by Claudia Puig, USA TODAY

Attending the family gathering in August: Osage County (**½ out of four; rated R; opens Friday in limited release) requires a strong stomach and the ability to withstand two hours of bickering and screaming matches.

But the dialogue is so sharply written and the sniping so deftly performed that it can be entertaining, though challenging to endure.

The film adaptation of Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play about familial resentments, secrets and betrayals is a faithful, if heavy-handed, one.

Meryl Streep is Violet, the malicious matriarch of the Weston family of Oklahoma. It’s both ironic and tragic that she’s suffering from mouth cancer. Her mouth burns and her tongue feels as if it’s on fire, she insists, but that doesn’t stop her from spewing verbal venom. The audience’s first glimpse of her is with shorn hair, tufted and patchy from chemo treatments. For most of the rest of the movie she sports a dark bouffant wig, pops handfuls of pain pills, chain smokes and lashes out spitefully. She calls it truth-telling.

Her husband is hard-drinking poet Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard), whose last refuge is his books.

The occasion that brings everyone together is his disappearance. Crisis mode does nothing to improve the flaring tempers and poisonous atmosphere around this clan. The cruelest words come tumbling out at the dinner table.

Arriving from Colorado, and trying to take charge is irritable, but well-meaning, Barbara (Julia Roberts), her husband, Bill (Ewan McGregor), and 14-year-old daughter, Jean (Abigail Breslin.)

It’s Roberts’ most emotionally mature and layered work, the best performance of her career.

Karen (Juliette Lewis) comes to her parents’ home with her latest beau, Steve (Dermot Mulroney).

The third Weston sister is the dutiful Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) who’s romantically involved with her hapless cousin Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch), the son of Violet’s sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale) and Charles (Chris Cooper).

There’s real emotion amid the nastiness. Violet is upset that Barbara never came home when she was diagnosed with cancer, Barbara is hurt by a philandering husband, and Ivy and Little Charles genuinely care for each other.

Johnna (Misty Upham), a Native American caretaker hired by Beverly to take care of his wife, shows some bona fide human compassion for Violet, despite Violet’s virulent racism toward her.

The stagy nature of the story can make for claustrophobic — as well as cringe-inducing— viewing. The story teeters on melodrama, yet it can be bitterly, bleakly funny, full of devastating one-liners.

As much as the brilliant Streep rules the movie, as she does the Weston roost, Roberts powerfully holds her own in their scenes together. While Streep’s Violet is an unrepentant harridan, Roberts’ Barbara is recognizably human, frustration furrowing her brow, weariness in her every move. She flushes away her mom’s pills, but that doesn’t lessen her seething. We can feel Barbara tempering her antagonism in moments when she experiences tenderness for her mom, just as she unleashes her bitterness when her mother”s brutal diatribes become too much. One of Roberts’ finest moments comes when Barbara feels her father’s loss most acutely. She quietly pleads with her teen daughter: “Die after me, all right? I don’t care what else you do, where you go, how you screw up your life. Just survive. Please.”

The stifling heat of the Oklahoma summer is palpable throughout the film. Or is it just the suffocating gloom of this unhappy family?

It’s a powerful drama, but two hours of on-screen family dysfunction, child abuse, infidelity, incest, suicide and addiction is anything but joyful holiday fare.