If you go…
“August: Osage County,” rated R
Rating: 2.5 out of 4 stars
Running time: 120 minutes
Starring: Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor and Chris Cooper
Now playing at Wildhorse Stadium Cinemas.
If family issues were tangible, you could mix together decades of resentment, plentiful substance abuse, sprinkle it with adultery, add in a smidgen of incest, stick it in the blender and drink it. It certainly wouldn’t be palatable, but the lesson you’d learn would be akin to watching a movie like “August: Osage County.”
When Oklahoma writer Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard) up and leaves home, his eldest daughter Barbara (Julia Roberts) doubts it’s anything more than the old man’s usual bender. Still, that doesn’t keep her ailing mother, Violet (Meryl Streep), from demanding that she and her sisters (Julianne Nicholson, Juliette Lewis) help her in her time of need, no matter the inconvenience.
Unfortunately, what began as a mere burden for Barbara becomes even worse when her father is found dead. With her siblings and extended family gathering at the old homestead, everyone is forced to face a string of problems that have been lingering for years.
However, some of these conflicts would be well beyond solving even if the people involved weren’t in denial about their existence.
With her ability to instantly become the center of attention in just about any movie, Streep is the show here as Violet, for whom spreading misery is second nature, going well beyond the typical role of grieving widow. Afflicted with oral cancer and addicted to a daily cocktail of prescriptions, you’d think someone who complains about constant pain in her mouth would consider shutting it once in a while.
Or at least consider cutting down on the smokes.
With the chance to go toe to toe with the most versatile actress alive for the first time, it would be nice if Roberts seized the opportunity, yet she approaches Barbara with practically no energy, adding to her trend of lackluster performances in “Eat Pray Love” and “Larry Crowne.” When you need to hit white-hot fury on the spectrum of anger, a handful of separate hissy fits don’t cut it, especially when you’re dealing with a crumbling marriage and a teenage daughter (Abigail Breslin) who doesn’t respect you.
Margo Martindale has a better showing as Barbara’s aunt, Mattie Fae, who, like Violet, can’t help but grind her child’s self-esteem into nothingness, as evidenced by her self-confessed loser son (Benedict Cumberbatch). Nicholson has an excellent, understated turn as Violet’s middle child, Ivy, the only one to play the part of the good daughter by staying close to home, while getting little love in return.
Then there’s Misty Upham, whose breakthrough came with 2008’s “Frozen River,” with perhaps the most difficult part of all as Violet’s caretaker, holding her tongue in spite of all the nastiness unfolding in front of her.
Eh, well, at least it’s not her family …
There’s a sense of importance behind Tracy Letts adapting his own acclaimed stage play as a film, and it shows the potential to be one of those rare shows that transfers over to a different medium without a hitch. But, some hitches there are.
Showcasing the dusty plains of middle-of-nowhere America and the musty, overheated Weston household as a bubbling cauldron of bitterness sets the mood for people who are already on the edge, hitting its best — or rather, worst — use of tension during one of the most awkward sit-downs at the dinner table ever.
It’s not the feeling that’s left wanting but the consistency. There’s a lot of baggage shared here, and a lot of it just gets tossed out the window, especially with the men of the cast — Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Dermot Mulroney — who are present yet not really there.
An ensemble structure doesn’t mean everyone gets the same amount of focus, but something’s lacking from the onset and the entirety of the story has the air of minimal effort from most involved. Streep’s endless tirades are compelling and sometimes heart-wrenching, though they can’t sustain this hodgepodge of dysfunction.
As a look at a forceful matriarch and her kin, “August: Osage County” taps into the guilt and rage within all of us and then loses its hold. Those who have seen it live likely will attest its superiority on the stage, but even they probably wouldn’t turn down the chance to have a movie starring a 17-time Oscar nominee.
Actually, I guess now she’s an 18-time nominee.
Contact Andy Bockelman at 970-875-1793 or abockelman@CraigDailyPress.com.