REVIEW: August: Osage County Starring Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts. Directed by John Wells. M.
Just as some actors can empower and enhance movies through their performances, so can an ensemble cast - and the dysfunctional family drama August: Osage County has both. And it needs them.
Leading its excellent ensemble cast is an actress who on her own can make a movie seem better than it is: Meryl Streep. She is the hub from which the rest of the cast radiate like spokes to strengthen and help make the wheel of the story go round.
It's a film which thrusts moviegoers into the middle of a family full of spite and secrets, acrimony and antagonism, resentments and recriminations.
The family here is the Westons, an antithesis of television's loving, caring Waltons. In 2007 in the wide open spaces of the Oklahoma plains members of the Weston family and their loved ones gather in a farmhouse in close, claustrophobic quarters, with festering family frictions and fractures exacerbated by summer heat.
Beverly Weston (Sam Sheperd), an alcoholic poet, has gone missing and family members arrive to support his wife Violet (Streep), herself suffering from mouth cancer and addicted to pharmaceutical drugs.
Coming from Colorado, if reluctantly and with misgivings, is Violet's eldest daughter Barbara (Julia Roberts), with her husband Bill (Ewan McGregor), from whom she has separated, and their disaffected 14-year-old daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin).
Joining Barbara are her two sisters - insecure Karen (Juliette Lewis), travelling from Florida with her latest boyfriend and fiance Steve (Dermot Mulroney), and spinster Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), who has thanklessly lived nearby but has found a secret boyfriend.
As well there's Violet's sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale), her tolerant husband Charlie (Chris Cooper) and their introverted son "Little" Charlie (Benedict Cumberbatch), who Mattie considers a disappointing loser.
Their few days together - with a dinner centrepiece - is a time of angry arguments and bitter diatribes in a story sprinkled with suicide, infidelity and incest.
Eviscerating anyone who comes within range is Streep's Violet, a volatile harridan and matriarchal monster whose vicious tongue spews venom in the guise of "truth-telling".
It's a dominating, flamboyant, theatrical-style performance from Streep, who chews up the scenery and anyone close by and spits it out with callous disregard for feelings. Complementing her is Roberts, whose own acting keeps improving with age and whose Barbara gives as good as she gets.
The rest of the cast cannot be flawed, but the standouts are Martindale and Cooper, with the latter's Charlie having memorable moments saying grace and admonishing his cruel wife.
Lewis offers another wild, if a bit vacuous, child, who's hooked up with Mulroney's older guy with a sports car and a sleazy attitude towards Breslin's teenager Jean, who's a vegetarian and expounds against eating meat because of ingesting animal fear.
McGregor flashes his usual boyish smile but his Bill is a man who's either bland and diffident or knows from experience when to be restrained and accommodating.
Cumberbatch's "Little" Charlie is a change of pace from the self-confident, super-smart characters he's recently played in Star Trek into Darkness, The Fifth Estate and Television's Sherlock.
Also in the cast and household is Johanna (Misty Upham), a Native American (Cheyenne) cook and general servant who acts as our silent surrogate observer until one moment when she can no longer simply stand by and listen and watch.
However, except for the two Charlies, none of the characters are sympathetic; it's hard to care about any of them.
Unlike two plays it recalls - Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night and Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf - this screen version by Tracy Letts of his Pulitzer Prize-winning play is too overwrought, without subtlety or nuance and stews too much in its own hateful juices to be either illuminating, intriguing, affecting, redeeming or entertaining.
It's supposed to be a black comedy but, except for a few moments of uneasy humour, is too much a mean-spirited melodramatic soap opera with vitriolic suds likely to leave you benumbed, although still admiring the cast and perhaps thinking your own family squabbles aren't so bad by comparison.
- © Fairfax NZ News