For all its hard-edged, sniper-fire comic moments and general hot-and-cold running cynicism, August: Osage County perhaps serves as an odd, left-handed “feel good” confection among the Christmas-holiday-season release harvest. It may manage to make our own more mildly dysfunctional families seem tame by comparison. In the alternately crude and learned Oklahoman Weston family, the familial sludge and ugly secrets run deep and wide. With TV director John Wells’s uneven screen adaptation of Tracy Letts’s Tennessee Williams-esque stage play, the more we learn and are teasingly fed about strange relations, going back to the ghosts of earlier generations and within the present brood, the more we cringe, laugh (uncomfortably), and ultimately cry out “enough already.”
But even as the sometimes too over-the-top film drags on and tests our patience, the continuing saving grace comes in the form of one Meryl Streep, again confirming our suspicions that she may be the reigning queen of living American film actresses. We expect Streep to dazzle, but she does so from a sneak-attack direction here, in a type of role we’re unaccustomed to seeing her in — a bewigged, extra-salty, cynical, prescription-pill-fueled matriarchal tyrant with little kind to say about any of her kin: a dark reckoning force in the vein of Elizabeth Taylor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Now, that’s entertainment!
Narratively, the story deals with compressed circumstances. Dad (Sam Shepard), an alcoholic former poet and professor, has disappeared again, possibly for good, and mom (Streep) is in an especially bleak and foul demeanor. Mouth cancer (ironically, her husband says) and pharmaceutical overload, adding to her own natural rancor and acidic wit, lead her to attack her daughters (Julia Roberts, in rare, f-bombing form; mild-mannered Julianne Nicholson; and a tart Juliette Lewis) and anyone else within striking distance.
In effect, August: Osage County is one of two bracing war films released in town last week, alongside Lone Survivor — one takes place in an Oklahoman family home, the other in an Afghanistan outback. August comes equipped with black and brackish humor to lighten the load, but its tragedy factor is ever-ready to bubble up from just below the surfaces.