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August: Osage County

- Meryl Streep
- Julia Roberts

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. On stage, the play was confined to a creaking, cavernous old house that seemed variously a womb, a prison and a sarcophagus for those who passed through it. On screen, gently opened up to include the big skies and infinite horizons of the real Osage County (where the pic was lensed), it suggests a more barbed, astringent Terms of Endearment for the Prozac era, with fewer tears and far more recriminations. We are introduced to the Weston clan by way of patriarch Beverly, a melancholic poet (played here by an excellent Sam Shepard) who quotes T.S. Eliot’s immortal maxim that ‘life is very long’ just before taking matters into his own hands. The ensuing funeral serves as a de facto family reunion, the previously empty house filling to the rafters with Beverly’s three grown daughters, their significant others and assorted relations. All have come to pay their last respects. From all points they converge: Barbara (Julia Roberts), the eldest, with her estranged husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) and moody teen daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin) in tow; Karen (Juliette Lewis), the youngest, who shows up on the arm of her supposed fiance (Dermot Mulroney), a sleazy Florida hustler with unsavoury business connections; and middle child Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), whose big secret is that she’s sweet on her first cousin ‘Little’ Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch). None will leave without incurring the wrath of the widow Weston, Violet (Meryl Streep), a cancer-stricken, pill-popping martinet whose idol was Liz Taylor. In Violet, Letts (who adapted his play for the screen) has created one of the great, showstopping female roles in recent American theatre and Streep plays it to the hilt, in and out of a black fright wig (to hide the character’s chemo-stricken hair) and oversized sunglasses, cursing like a longshoreman and whittling everyone down to size. It’s a ‘big’ performance, but it’s just what the part calls for, since Vi is something of an actress herself, craving the attention that comes with turning a solemn family gathering into an occasion for high theatre. This may be Beverly’s funeral, but it’s Vi’s chance to shine. Shine she does, especially during the long funeral dinner at the end of act two. Streep is electrifying to watch here, goosing, prodding, meting out punishment and laying family secrets bare, surprisingly gentle one moment, demonic the next. And Roberts, who hasn’t had a big, meaty part like this in years, possesses just the right hardened beauty to play an aging woman let down by life, terrified at the thought of becoming her mother. If Streep and Roberts have the roman candle roles here, the entire cast is commendable, with Letts and Wells giving even the most seemingly incidental character (like the fine Native American actress Misty Upham as Vi’s live-in caretaker) a grace note or two. Lewis is a particular hoot as the daughter hanging on to her carefree youth with all fingernails firmly dug in, while Cumberbatch is very touching as the clumsy, unemployed young man whose diminutive name is one of Letts’ few overtly symbolic touches. (Also excellent: Margo Martindale and Chris Cooper as Little Charles’ parents.) Shooting in widescreen – a practical necessity with this many characters to squeeze into a frame – Adriano Goldman beautifully captures the hazy half-light of a house whose permanently drawn window shades are mentioned in the dialogue. Indeed, it is a place where we can never be sure whether we are traveling a long day’s journey into night, or a long night’s journey into day. – Scott Foundas, VarietyOfficial Trailer
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Directed by: 
John Wells
Running Time: 
Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Chris Cooper, Dermot Mulroney, Ewan McGregor, Juliette Lewis, Abigail Breslin, Benedict Cumberbatch, Julianne Nicholson, Margo Martindale, Sam Shepard, Misty Upham
Screenplay by: 
Tracy Letts

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