By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood December 27, 2013 at 1:53PM
Sam Shepard kicks off the screen adaptation of “August: Osage County” with a foggy reference to T. S. Eliot and a succinct account of some of the family pathology that will occupy his kin (and the audience) for the next couple of hours. “My wife takes pills,” he says, “and I drink.” Mr. Shepard is Beverly Weston, a poet living in a big, faded farmhouse in northeastern Oklahoma. Beverly’s wife, Violet, soon makes her wobbly, cackling entrance in the person of Meryl Streep. She takes pills. He drinks. And then Mr. Shepard quits the scene. You will miss him. You might also envy him.
There are no surprises — just lots of good, old-fashioned scenery chewing — in “August: Osage County”, director John Wells’ splendid film version of playwright Tracy Letts’ acid-tongued Broadway triumph about three generations in a large and highly dysfunctional Oklahoma family. Arriving onscreen shorn of some girth (the stage version ran more than three hours, with two intermissions) but keeping most of its scalding intensity, this two-ton prestige pic won’t win the hearts of highbrow critics or those averse to door-slamming, plate-smashing, top-of-the-lungs histrionics, but as a faithful filmed record of Letts’ play, one could have scarcely hoped for better.
Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer and Tony-winning play about the unique capacity for cruelty of the modern American family, August: Osage County, is a fat juicy steak of a drama marinated in corrosive comedy. Arriving on the screen with mixed dividends from an all-star cast, the film doesn’t shed its inherent theatricality, stringing together speeches and showdowns peppered with nuggets of stagey dialog that resists being played in naturalistic closeup. But it’s nonetheless an entertaining adaptation, delivering flavorful rewards in some sharp supporting turns that flank the central mother-daughter adversaries.
It's bracing, but it does feel closer to panto than melodrama, more exhausting than illuminating. Violet is a queen bitch with only the tiniest of chinks, a hybrid of Streep's imperious Thatcher, Kristin Scott Thomas in Only God Forgives and, in cuddlier moments, Ricky Tomlinson in The Royle Family. Yet for all the sparks, the character can't quite catch fire in these conditions. Such southern fried frankness might thrill those in the theatre but at the cinema we eat this sort of thing for breakfast.
Streep plunges into Violet's nuclear psyche so ferociously that there's a slight danger of forfeiting our sympathies for good. The original, full-blown ending might have capped this performance more emphatically. That said, the fact that she's being played by Streep is a guarantee you're going to get both the wild ride and the poignant hangover. Roberts has been much less consistent lately, so it's especially good for Wells that she turns out to be his top trump.
Acting with a capital “A” dominates August: Osage County, a darkly comic drama that explores the ugly anger, pain and secrets that are eating away at an Oklahoman family like the cancer that’s afflicting its poisonously bitter matriarch. Based on the Pulitzer-winning play by Tracy Letts about a very unhappy family reunion, this ensemble piece is filled with high-profile actors who dig into the story’s rich lines and overflowing melodrama. With a family this overwrought, it’s fitting that the movie is a bit of a mess itself, but director John Wells mostly keeps this emotional rollercoaster on the rails.