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posted: 1/9/2014 5:30 AM

Tracy Letts' 'August' makes for a raw, brutal, comically laced drama

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  • "August: Osage County" starring Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep

      "August: Osage County" starring Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep

  • Video: "August: Osage County" trailer

 
 

Tracy Letts' Pulitzer Prize-winning stage play "August: Osage County" originated in 2007 at Chicago's famed Steppenwolf Theatre before moving to Broadway and winning the Tony. Now it's a wounding Weinstein Company movie directed by John "The Company Men" Wells.

Letts' screenplay, pared down from his stage version by about an hour, remains a thick, tasty, meaty bone for the female-dominated cast to vigorously chew for 119 minutes.

This raw, brutal, comically laced domestic drama recalls the nastiness and hurt of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" with a touch of Tennessee Williams' tension.

Little wonder "Osage County" was pulled from its Christmas Day Chicago release, then again from a Jan. 3 release. It hardly emanates a "happy holidays" vibe.

The story takes place in Oklahoma during August when the temperatures shoot so high that they create a scalding caldron of caustic conflict.

Alcoholic poet and college professor Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard) shares a raspy relationship with wife Vivian Weston (Meryl Streep), introduced as an abuse-spouting, pill-popping harpy to Johnna (Misty Upham), a Native American housekeeper he has just hired to care for the house and his wife.

Vi has loaded up on every pain medication known to pharmacists because she has cancer. The "punch line," as Beverly tells Johnna, is that the verbose Vi has cancer of the mouth.

In short order, we discover why Beverly has hired a caretaker. He mysteriously disappears, as he apparently has before, causing the entire dysfunctional Weston clan to descend upon the house.

Hardened daughter Barbara (Julia Roberts) hauls in from Colorado with her estranged hubby Bill (Ewan McGregor) and their 14-year-old quietly rebellious daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin).

Barb's introverted sister Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) never moved away, so she has born the brunt of daughterly responsibility in the family.

Vi's sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale) and her husband, Charles (Chris Cooper), arrive ahead of their emotionally insecure son, fittingly called Little Charles (the ubiquitous Benedict Cumberbatch).

Meanwhile, Vi's empathy-challenged daughter Karen (Juliette Lewis) comes in from Florida dragging along her latest guy Steve (Dermot Mulroney), and she's convinced herself he might be the one.

Vi, even in a sober state, holds nothing back. She speaks truth, tells it like it is, lays it on the line, and the metaphorical bodies start piling up as she tries to turn her family gathering into an Osage emo-massacre.

There are family secrets to be exposed, old wounds to be avenged, slights to be addressed and dreams to be crushed during the rest of "August: Osage County."

Wells serves it all up in a sharp, contentious movie that can't quite divorce itself from its theatrical roots.

He "opens up" Letts' stage play with a couple of outdoor running scenes and some lonesome landscape shots (provided by cinematographer Adriano Goldman).

Still, chunks of speechy dialogue and concocted confrontations dominate this drama, deftly delivered by a superlative cast.

Vi is the mother of all characters here, and Streep's technically perfect portrayal of her -- with tics, mannerisms, dazed expressions and addled bumblings -- covers for a conspicuous shortage of spontaneous spark.

Roberts plays Barb mostly with one-note anger, amped up when she finally declares war on Mom. She still comes off better than McGregor, who doesn't communicate much about his dull, ambiguous Bill.

Martindale is a marvel as Mattie Fae, a work of transparent honesty whose constant ridicule of Little Charles ("Belittle Charles" seems to be her motto) finally pushes Cooper's calmly cautious Charles to lay her out with a harshness he has probably never exhibited in his entire life.

"August: Osage County" offers a few comical nuggets now and then, but this is a flat-out domestic tragedy, one with a poignantly sad and bluntly honest ending, a stark image of aloneness that can't be lightened up by footage of Barb driving to her freedom across the Oklahoma plains.

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