By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — August: Osage County is an unapologetically stagy comedy-drama, a pared-down adaptation of Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize-winning and Tony Award-winning play about major family dysfunction.
But that unusual title might have been swapped for something like “Death of a Long Day’s Journey onto Virginia Woolf’s Streetcar.” This is a bracing August dip in the pool of classic American plays about truth-telling and family dynamics.
As the title tells us, we’re in Osage County, Okla., at the home of crusty, mouth cancer-stricken Violet Weston, played by Meryl Streep, and Beverly Weston, her husband, played by Sam Shepard. He’s a once-famous, world-weary poet and an admitted alcoholic; she has oral cancer and has very obviously become addicted to drugs and drink.
Beverly has hired a live-in Native American caretaker, played by Misty Upham, to look after Violet.
Suddenly, Beverly takes off and disappears. But when the extended family gathers to find him, they discover that he has apparently taken his own life.
So, the three generations regather for Beverly’s funeral.
That includes Barbara, the eldest of the Westons’ three daughters, played by Julia Roberts, in from Colorado and home for the first time in years; Karen, the youngest, played by Juliette Lewis, newly engaged and seemingly deluded about the character of her fiancé; and the introverted middle sister Ivy, played by Julianne Nicholson, who has continued to live in the house with her parents.
Also portraying Weston relatives, significant others, and guests are Ewan McGregor (as Barbara’s estranged husband), Abigail Breslin (as their daughter), Margo Martindale (as Violet’s sister), Chris Cooper (as her husband), Benedict Cumberbatch (as their son), and Dermot Mulroney (as Karen’s fiancé) -– Can’t tell the players without a scorecard! -– who gather for a meal during which insinuations, accusations, insults, articulated resentments, and devastating secrets bubbling just below the surface will render the menu of edibles inconsequential.
On this occasion, long-lasting conflicts and wounds will be quick to surface and slow to heal in a family that just about defines dysfunction (or at least puts the funk in it) as it parades togetherness.
Director John Wells (The Company Men, TV’s “ER” and “Shameless”) works from Letts’ screenplay, which turns the three-hours-plus play into a two-hour movie that could perhaps use at least a few minutes more in the name of context and connective tissue.
The director opens up the play a bit, but pretty much leaves the piece’s stagebound and slightly claustrophobic origins intact, an approach that is perhaps most striking during an extended dinner-table sequence involving nearly the entire cast.
And whatever structural limitations or peculiarities the film version may have, the pleasure of Letts’ rhythmic, venomous, and often ferociously funny dialogue remains.
Streep is her usual powerhouse self as the domineering and vicious Violet (who makes Streep’s boss from hell in 2006’s The Devil Wears Prada, Amanda Priestly, seem downright warm and fuzzy). But it’s Roberts, matching or surpassing her Oscar-winning work in Erin Brockovich (2000) who grabs us in ways she hasn’t before with her angry, edgy Barbara, holding her own opposite Streep just as Barbara does opposite Violet, as the two play a mother and daughter who may have more in common that they think.
Neither actress attempts or achieves charm or likability, but both shine in the emotional truth of their characters, situation, and relationship.
But this is no two-hander: despite the size of the cast, just about every character gets to at least register if not verbally explode, with Martindale and Cooper especially fine.
So we’ll gather 3 stars out of 4 for August: Osage County, an absorbing ensemble dramedy in which the special effects are the performers and CGI stands for “Character Generation Inspired.”