Movie review: ‘August: Osage County’ an overcooked potboiler
Review • Acting is all over the map in this play adaptation.
Published: January 10, 2014 10:25AM
Updated: January 10, 2014 10:26AM
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This image released by Toronto International Film Festival shows Julianne Nicholson, from left, Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts in a scene from "August: Osage County," a film being showcased at the Toronto International Film Festival. (AP Photo/Toronto International Film Festival)

For all its Oscar-caliber talent and Broadway awards credentials, writer Tracy Letts’ “August: Osage County” is, at heart, a soap opera — a small-town potboiler about family secrets and repressed anger — and a fairly routine one at that.

And, under the direction of former “ER” showrunner John Wells, it has the contours of a disaster movie — as all the other cast members try to weather the hurricane that is Meryl Streep’s outsized character, Violet Weston.

Violet is the pill-popping, perpetually harsh matriarch of a rural Oklahoma family, recently suffering a bout of mouth cancer. She lives in a big, empty house with her husband, Beverly (Sam Shepard), a once-renowned poet, and the just-hired housekeeper, Johnna (Misty Upham), an American Indian woman. One night, Beverly goes missing, and the Weston clan begins to gather to brace for more bad news.

There’s Violet’s sharp-tongued sister, Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale); her easygoing husband, Charlie (Chris Cooper); and their unemployed son, Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch). Then come the Westons’ three daughters:

• Barbara (Julia Roberts), a college professor in Colorado dealing with an impending divorce from Bill (Ewan McGregor) and the rebelliousness of their 14-year-old daughter, Jean (Abigail Breslin).

• Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), the dutiful middle child who stayed behind to look after Violet — and who has had a secret relationship with her cousin Charles.

• Karen (Juliette Lewis), the flighty youngest daughter, who drags along her new fiancé, the vaguely sleazy Steve (Dermot Mulroney), up from Florida.

These family ties, and other big secrets, trickle out in Letts’ fairly direct adaptation of his Pulitzer Prize-winning play. The gusher comes in the movie’s centerpiece scene, a family dinner in which Violet lets loose with what she calls “truth telling” — but what the family sees as hard-hearted invective, given free rein thanks to her addiction to painkillers and alcohol. That’s when Barbara takes charge, forcibly taking Violet’s pills away to force the mother to sober up at last.

Roberts gives one of the best, and most understated, performances of her career here, finding sympathy for Barbara’s exasperation at her mother — while also understanding how Barbara is turning into another Violet. Nicholson also underplays as the quietly suffering Ivy, and Cooper and Martindale spar well as the well-meaning Charlie and the fuming Mattie Fae.

But many of the performances — such as Lewis’ daffy Karen and Cumberbatch’s dithering Charles — are playing to the cheap seats. The most overblown of all is Streep, who chews up scenery as thoroughly as Violet downs pills. She tears into Letts’ rants with a fierce recklessness, portraying Violet as a woman who knows no one will dare stand up to her.

Unfortunately, no one — including the director, Wells — seems willing to stand up to Streep, either. As a result “August: Osage County” sinks into a stew of overcooked theatrics.

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‘August: Osage County’

A mixed bag of performances — some understated, others over-the-top — fail to rein in Tracy Letts’ award-winning small-town soap opera.

Where • Area theaters.

When • Opens today.

Rating • R for language including sexual references, and for drug material.

Running time • 121 mins.