August: Osage County

August: Osage County

Tracy Letts won every big theater prize, from a Tony to a Pulitzer, for his enthralling, sprawling three-hour-plus play about the squabbling Weston clan of Oklahoma uniting for the funeral of dear old suicidal dad (Sam Shepard). The clumsily edited film, directed by John Wells, best known for TV producing (ER, The West Wing), cuts an hour of plot and a shitload of humor and heart. It’s a shock Letts did the script; his text was worth fighting for. You feel something’s missing.

The compensation comes from the cast. Meryl Streep, trailing Oscar nominations wherever she goes, bites into the role of pill-junkie matriarch Violet like a juicy peach. Vi is fighting cancer and her family with equal vengeance. Letts’ tart, tasty dialogue rolls off her tongue with venomous glee. Two of her daughters, loyal Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) and vagabond Karen (Juliette Lewis), are no match for Vi. It’s daughter Barbara (Julia Roberts), stuck with a cheating husband (Ewan McGregor), who takes no shit. The acting styles of Streep and Roberts, both Golden Globe nominees, don’t exactly mesh, but they’re a hoot.

While they emote, three of their castmates walk off with the movie. Margo Martindale is indisputably great as Mattie, Vi’s formidable sister. And Chris Cooper underplays beautifully as Mattie’s husband, a quiet man who protects their mentally challenged son (a superb Benedict Cumberbatch) from family shrapnel. When these three are onscreen, August: Osage County retains its power to floor you.

From The Archives Issue 1200: January 16, 2014