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‘August: Osage County’: It’s draining, all this complaining

Back her hometown OklahomBarbar(JuliRoberts) confronts her abusive mother Violet (Meryl Streep) her naive sister Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) film versiTracy Letts’

Back in her hometown in Oklahoma, Barbara (Julia Roberts) confronts her abusive mother, Violet (Meryl Streep), and her naive sister Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) in the film version of Tracy Letts’ play “August: Osage County.” | WEINSTEIN CO.

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‘AUGUST: osage county’ ★★

Violet Weston Meryl Streep

Barbara Weston Julia Roberts

Bill Fordham Ewan McGregor

Charles Aiken Chris Cooper

Jean Fordham Abigail Breslin

The Weinstein Co. presents a film directed by John Wells and written by Tracy Letts, based on his play. Running time: 119 minutes. Rated R (for language including sexual references, and for drug material). Opens Friday at local theaters.

Margo Martindale talks to Zwecker about "August: Osage County"

Updated: February 11, 2014 6:03AM

Watching an ensemble of world-class actors engaging in reach-the-back-row histrionics in “August: Osage County” reminded me of those all-star rock ’n’ roll jams that sometimes close out awards shows.

You know what I’m talking about. The stage is overflowing with some unlikely mishmash of superstars along the lines of Paul McCartney, Elton John, Jay-Z, Carrie Underwood, Eric Clapton, Bruce Springsteen, Bono and about two dozen other luminaries, all jamming to “Hey Jude” or something, and they’re having the time of their lives up there, and you’re marveling at the array of talent …

And the song is just crushed by the overkill.

So it is with “August: Osage County,” the film version of the Tracy Letts play that won the Pulitzer Prize and five Tonys. Academy Award winners Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts and Chris Cooper share the stage — er, the screen — with Sam Shepard, Abigail Breslin, Ewan McGregor, Dermot Mulroney, Juliette Lewis, Margo Martindale, even Benedict Cumberbatch (!) in a sometimes wickedly funny but ultimately sour, loud, draining tale of one of the most dysfunctional families in modern American drama. And that’s saying a lot.

Nearly everyone in this story would be the most horrific person at your average dinner party. Put ’em all together, most of the time in one dark and emotionally haunted house, and they’ll wear you out to the point where the last few big reveals seem more like piling on than stunning revelations.

Set during a blazing hot late summer in 2007 in Pawhuska, Okla., “August: Osage County” begins with Sam Shepard’s Beverly, once a poet of some acclaim, telling the new caretaker, a Cheyenne woman named Johnna (Misty Upham), that his wife takes pills and he’s a drinker. (He leaves out the “all the time” part.) One look around the musty, half-dead, shambling old house, with the curtains drawn tight and the windows taped so as not to allow in any sunlight, and it’s a wonder the caretaker doesn’t run for her life.

Meryl Streep is Beverly’s wife Violet, a monster of a woman who gobbles prescription pills like they’re M&M’s and engages in nearly nonstop verbal abuse of her daughters and other family members — behind their backs, to their faces and if they’re dead, to their memories. Suffering from mouth cancer doesn’t keep Violet from spewing out the poison.

A death in the family is the impetus for a reunion that includes most of Violet’s immediate kin and their significant others, including:

† Violet’s sister Mattie Fae Aiken (Margo Martindale, in perhaps the film’s best performance), who has a sugar-coated exterior but is nearly as vicious as Violet as she henpecks her husband Charles (Chris Cooper) and shows not a grain of love for her underachieving son (a miscast Benedict Cumberbatch), who is called “Little Charles” even though he’s about 37.

† Violet’s oldest daughter Barbara (Julia Roberts), who has acquired some of her mother’s acidic ways; Barbara’s philandering husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) and their teenage daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin), who’s quite the little s---.

† Another daughter, Karen (Juliette Lewis), who fancies herself a free spirit but seems manic-depressive and utterly delusional. Her new beau Steve (Dermot Mulroney) is clearly a con and a jerk from the moment you hear the worst oldies rock imaginable blasting from his obnoxious convertible.

† The sweetest, most sympathetic character is Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), the only daughter who has remained in Osage County. But even poor Ivy’s a mess. She’s in love with her first cousin. That would be Little Charles.

These are the people with whom we are asked to spend almost two hours. The dialogue is sometimes so sharp we wince; the acting is for the most part superb. Nearly every character gets a shining moment, whether it’s Aunt Mattie Fae shocking Barbara with her casual admission she’s always known one dark family secret; Charles finally telling Mattie Fae to shut up, or Violet telling a story from her own childhood that reveals cruelty has been the way of this family for generations.

But even as played by the great Streep, Violet is such a toxic soul we don’t care what happened to her as a child, and we have difficulty feeling empathy for anyone that would choose to spend any time mucking about in the cesspool of hate she creates, family ties be damned.

Julia Roberts gives one of the best performances of her career, as we see that struggle within Barbara to separate forever from this family, to drive away from that house one last time and never look back. It might not be too late for Barbara.

Everyone else seems doomed, whether they’ve come to realize that or not. All the screaming and drinking and wrestling on the floor, all the plate-breaking and all the nasty remarks, all the insults and the threats — ultimately it feels as if we’re watching broken people lashing out as loud as possible in order to keep the denial going yet another day.


Twitter: @richardroeper

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