Nothing like some family venom to spice up a funeral. Adapted by Tracy Letts from his Pulitzer Prize-winning play, August: Osage County follows the Westons after the death of patriarch Beverly, as three generations gather to mourn, fight and fall apart under the poisonous, all-seeing eye of pill-popping Violet (Meryl Streep).
Suitably, August never forgets its source material. The Weston house, particularly the grandly claustrophobic dining room, looms. Though the camera occasionally discovers an uncompromising landscape, the house is the inescapable scene of the family crime. Even to reach the road, one drives past the estate on three sides; it’s a theater in the round for its talented cast.
And it’s a cast better taken as a whole. Though deploying insults at full drawl, Streep suffers from inherently stagey conceptualization and reaches Violet’s steel core more deftly in understated beats than when called on to swing wide. Julia Roberts’ Barbara, unwilling matriarch-in-waiting, gets moments of reserve that usually save her from the precipice of camp. But the supporting ensemble shines brightest: Margo Martindale is the practical, haunted axis around which the powerhouses pivot, and she, Chris Cooper, Misty Upham and Julianne Nicholson are a nuanced, subsumed counterpoint to the hysterics. And while some inevitably get lost in the shuffle, Juliette Lewis and slimy fiance Dermot Mulroney are surprising standouts, offering awkward comedy and sleazeball catharsis when required.
This movie needs both. August: Osage County is a comedy in dramatic freefall, and though it smartly avoids wrapping up all the loose ends, things tip over into melodrama a little too often. Still, some of the secrets wrenched from the dinner table offer a spark of relief. No one will be changing much in these few days, but for the Westons, any understanding is better than none.