August: Osage County

Posted: January 10, 2014 at 2:08 a.m.

Every family has its troubles. But few can compare with those of the Weston family of rural Pawhuska, Okla., led by once-renowned poet Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard) and his wife, Violet (Meryl Streep). The opening scene of August: Osage County, which features a frightful introduction of vitriol-spewing Violet into a conversation between Beverly and a potential live-in domestic worker (Misty Upham), is so unnerving that audience members may squirm in their seats. And that’s only the beginning.

Based on Tracy Lett’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, the film revolves around all-powerful Violet, whose bizarre mothering technique, enacted with vicious passion by Streep, makes it hard to believe that she and Beverly were able to raise three daughters to adulthood. Not that the girls turn out all that well. The oldest, Barbara ( Julia Roberts), has inherited her mother’s sharp tongue and vindictive cruelty, which she used efficiently against her wimpy estranged husband, Bill (Ewan McGregor), and detached teenage daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin). Next there’s Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), whose range of troubles are hidden under the veneer of being a gentle, affectionate daughter, the only one who lives nearby, largely overlooked by her mother in favor of highly combative Barbara. The youngest is overripe coquette Karen (Juliette Lewis), with a forced gaiety that comes in handy in dealing with her family’s obvious indifference toward her.

The Westons are unwillingly reunited on the occasion of alcoholic Beverly’s disappearance (after 10 minutes into the film, there’s little question about why he leaves). Ivy is the first to arrive and must deal with her shrieking mother’s mix of heartbreak, hatred and longtime drug abuse. Barbara and family come from Colorado to receive a fawning welcome from Violet, followed by a descent into destructive old combative habits between them. Then Karen and her sleazy soonto-be husband Steve (Dermot Mulroney) drive in from Florida in Steve’s middle-age-crazy exotic car.

Throw in Violet’s plump, practical sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale), her patient and picked-on husband, Charlie (Chris Cooper), their not-all-there son Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch) and a full generation of grudges, unresolved disputes, jealousies, prejudices, terrorizing and bad judgment. The result is a fiery two-hour screaming match in the steamy heat of an Oklahoma prairie summer that’s made tolerable - and surprisingly entertaining - by occasional chaotic humor that sometimes comes with telling the truth, no matter who it hurts.

August: Osage County 88 Cast: Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Chris Cooper, Ewan McGregor, Margo Martindale, Abigail Breslin, Julianne Nicholson, Juliette Lewis, Sam Shepard, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dermot Mulroney Director: John Wells Rating: R for language, drug material Running time: 121 minutes

MovieStyle, Pages 35 on 01/10/2014