Family dysfunction can be so entertaining — when it's not your family, that is.
"August: Osage County," which deserves to sweep all the acting categories come Oscar time in March, proves the point. Were the Weston family real, we'd have to feel sorry for every person unlucky enough to have been born into it. But because it's fictional, we can laugh at every horrifying moment for its three daughters.
It might seem cruel to laugh, but that's what its sly creator wants us to do. Tracy Letts won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2008 with his pitch-black comedy about a few weeks in the life of a recently reunited family in rural Oklahoma. It was a rare case of an award given to a writer who unabashedly deserved it: "August: Osage County" celebrated the tradition of the American family dysfunction drama at the same time it turned it on its head by making it so deliciously droll.
Mr. Letts has trimmed his play from 3 hours to a rollicking two-hour movie. Even scenes that should feel excruciatingly long — like the dinner at which a daughter finally takes on miserly matriarch Violet Weston (Meryl Streep) — move swiftly. That's thanks to Mr. Letts' gift for dialogue, but also to those who give it life. "August: Osage County" has a particularly well-cast group of actors who manage to make melodrama seem all too real.
The family gathers at Violet's home after she reveals that her husband, Beverly (Sam Shepard), has been missing for days. Violet is dying — of mouth cancer, as Beverly wryly observes in the movie's opening — but she keeps herself alive and kicking with a cocktail of prescription drugs.
We soon discover why Beverly thinks it's so amusing that Violet would succumb to mouth cancer: She has a foul one. As soon as she enters the dining room for dinner after Beverly's inevitable funeral, she looks at the men without their suit jackets on and declares, "I thought we were having a funeral dinner, not a cockfight." It's a testament to her power within the family that every single man immediately puts his jacket back on.
But Violet was wrong — the dinner eventually looks more like a cockfight than a celebration of the much-missed patriarch. The physical rage daughter Barbara (Julia Roberts) finally unleashes on her mother is worth the price of admission alone.
Miss Streep is our best-loved actress, and she brings a surprising amount of sympathy to a character who has made so many lives miserable for so many years. Miss Roberts is more than an able foil — she is finally becoming an actress again after settling for being a movie star for so long. The men get fewer good lines, but they're all memorable here, especially Chris Cooper as the dead man's less-intellectual brother and Benedict Cumberbatch as his nephew. Both men prove that miserable matriarchy runs in the family — Violet's sister Mattie Fae is played to perfection by the underrated Margo Martindale.
When Violet is in the midst of one of her usual rants against her beautiful but vulnerable daughters, Barbara interjects, "That's the pills talking." Violet retorts, "Pills can't talk." She is right. This ultimately serious comedy that explores the ugly truth about family life has much to say, however.
TITLE: "August: Osage County"
CREDITS: Directed by John Wells. Screenplay by Tracy Letts based on his play
RATING: R for language including sexual references, and for drug material
RUNNING TIME: 121 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS