Take the worst family dinner party ever, times it by infinity and you can begin to imagine the discomfort and distress at the Weston clan table. “August: Osage County,” the all star remounting of Tracey Letts’s hit Broadway play never met a disparaging remark it couldn’t place in the mouth of one of its mean-spirited diners.
The film reunites the Weston sisters, Barbara (Julia Roberts), Karen (Juliette Lewis) and Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) along with soon-to-be ex-husbands, grumpy granddaughters and secret lovers, with their pill-popping mommy dearest Violet (Meryl Streep). They come together when Dad (Sam Shepard) goes missing, but his disappearance is simply a backdrop to bring this desperate group of people together and allow them to wallow in their dysfunction.
“August: Osage County” is ram-packed with unlikeable characters played by likeable actors. There’s more baggage on display here than at any airport carousel and while it is occasionally difficult to buy in to the level of petty behavior displayed by Violet and her prey, the vindictive dialogue often does sound delicious rolling off the tongues of these actors.
A case in point is the dinner scene. It features the best example of ensemble acting on screen this year, giving everyone around the crowded table a chance to show what they can do. Chris Cooper’s rambling, extended saying-of-grace is worth the price of admission, but the powerhouse back-and-forth between Streep and Roberts is the main attraction.
Roberts hasn’t had a juicy role like this in years. Her Barbara is a bit of an enigma. She’s a jumble of mixed, complicated emotions, capable of both great kindness and compassion but seems only to express herself through tough love. When she explodes she’s letting loose a lifetime of rage stemming from her mother’s mistreatment.
When they go head-to-head it is the clash of the titans and an unforgettable scene.
Streep is shrill, and purposefully so, but it is far from a one note performances. For instance a porch swing monologue shows her mastery of the form. What could have been an interminable acting class monologue is transformed into an epic bit of storytelling with more range and character development in the five minutes it takes to play out than most movies contain in their entire running time.
“August: Osage County” sometimes feels like you’re watching “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” with all the tender parts removed. Unhappy people abound and so do inappropriate situations to the point where it becomes hard to imagine that this much dysfunction could be squeezed into one story, but director John Wells holds steady, creating a setting where this kind of behavior can thrive.
Only a misplaced smile in the film’s closing minute feels out of place. It’s an attempt at a Tinsel Town feel good moment in a film that has been uncompromising it its world view up until a final, unnecessary Hollywood touch.