Tracy Letts’ prize-bedecked Broadway drama “August: Osage County” clatters onto the screen in hit-or-miss fashion, with a cadre of stars who go at each other like drivers in a demolition derby. Letts is a punishing, brazenly funny playwright whose work can ignite the screen: See William Friedkin’s diabolically effective adaptations of “Bug” and “Killer Joe,” films that walk the high wire between melodrama and horrific farce.
Here, despite honest efforts by Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Juliette Lewis, Benedict Cumberbatch and director John Wells, the film can’t transcend its theatrical, non-naturalistic roots. An experience that should be shattering is merely battering.
The story is a three-ring tragicomedy of adultery, alcoholism, drug addiction, incest and poor table manners. It’s set in Pawhuska, Okla., at the funeral for Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard), a poet and semiprofessional drinker who has graduated from drowning his sorrows to drowning himself. His passing reunites the family’s three daughters, their significant others and sundry relations in the sweltering family house. This provides what military strategists call a target-rich environment for Bev’s sardonic, serpent-tongued widow, Violet (Streep, in a performance both no-holds-barred and subtly controlled).
No shrinking violet is vile, violent Vi. While she’s exultant at having outlived Bev, she’s bitterly aware that she’s next. Vi has cancer of the mouth, no doubt caused by her venomous tongue. Despite being half-zonked on painkillers, she works overtime provoking the relatives she rarely sees. Vi calls her witty, shame-based verbal sadism honesty. She is a truth-teller in the same way an operator of a wrecking ball is a home remodeler.
Her main quarry is her three daughters. Passive, clinging Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) has remained close to home, ostensibly out of dutiful concern but actually to be near her scandalous secret lover. Embittered Barbara (Roberts) abandoned a promising writing career, following her teacher husband, Bill (McGregor), into academic anonymity and an unraveling marriage. She’s called Barb, appropriately, the offspring best equipped for nostril-flaring, eye-blazing, fang-baring rumbles with mom. Moonbeam optimist Karen (Lewis) arrives from Florida with a thrice-divorced Lothario of a fiancé, Steve (Dermot Mulroney), who leches on Barb and Bill’s pot-smoking 14-year-old daughter, Jean (Abigail Breslin).
Also in the free-fire zone are Vi’s vulgar sister, Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale), her down-to-earth husband, Charlie (Chris Cooper), and their intellectually underendowed son, Little Charles (Cumberbatch).
Streep gets a jokey pleasure out of Vi’s cruelty, and for stretches, so do we, laughing as we wince. When the men arrive at the table without coat and tie, Violet sharply reminds them the occasion is “a funeral, not a cock fight.” Actually it’s both, as one explosive Weston family secret after another is revealed in an escalating fever of group madness. After a flurry of recriminations, Roberts says, “Thank God, we can’t tell the future; we’d never get out of bed.”
Some of the casting is off. Cumberbatch is too intelligent to play the bumbling, namby-pamby Little Charles, and McGregor’s star power is wasted on his role as a bland college professor. Streep and Roberts are suited to their parts but perform at a heroic pitch that’s appropriate for the stage but overscaled for cinema. Their long-simmering power struggle culminates in a full-on, roll-on-the-rug cat fight that leaves viewers feeling worked over. This is not the acting that conceals acting. Less showy but nicely used are Cooper and Nicholson, disclosing their unassuming characters’ intimate feelings and inner conflicts with touching reserve. Their underacting provides a much needed breather.
After two hours of mounting drama fatigue, the film’s fatal flaw arrives at the climax. You needn’t have seen the play to sense that something fishy has been tacked on the end, which follows a dire but dramatically valid finale with a hopeful fade-out. It makes economic sense to send audiences home happy. It doesn’t make dramatic sense to follow two hours in an emotional cement mixer with a preposterous coda designed to soothe us. If movies are going to be utterly illogical, they might as well be real life, right?