"August: Osage County" is an emotionally brutal look at one of the most dysfunctional families to hit the big screen in years. Just like coming across a car wreck, there's something so compelling about this carnage of human tragedy that it demands full attention. It not only demands it, but sometimes, it drives a fist into the viewer's chest through the acting one-upmanship of its all-star cast.
The action unfolds on a painfully hot day when a family crisis brings the members of the Weston family back home. The strong-willed nature of the women triggers a whirlwind of old memories, long-kept secrets and lingering disappointments that turn this family reunion into a fight for survival.
At the heart of the war are the family matriarch, Violet Weston (Meryl Streep), and the oldest daughter, Barbara (Julia Roberts). Their relationship reaches the toxic level because of Violet's flights of emotional fancy and Barbara's long-suffering efforts to be seen as an equal.
Their conflict is just the main show in a script that features more angst and family drama than three seasons of "Downton Abbey." It's all presented through standout performances by Margo Martindale, Abigail Breslin, Juliette Lewis, Dermot Mulroney and Chris Cooper. Even Sam Shepard's brief time on screen is acting time well spent.
The screenplay by Tracy Letts, based on his play that won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, unmercifully layers on the anger and angst. A simple family dinner becomes a porcelain-covered battlefield where no prisoners are taken. Each exposing moment is filled with bitter salts — mostly by Violet or Barbara.
The film features solid direction by John Wells, a tough task considering the kind of collection of stars you normally only see gathered at the Oscars. It starts with A-listers like Streep and Roberts, who treat every scene together like a heavyweight fight where both combatants refuse to give an inch.
Sometimes less is more. They both should pay attention to the kind of work Martindale does. She can deliver the same emotional punch without the performance ever looking labored or forced.
Wells has tried to give the production a larger feel than what comes with a the staging of the story in a theater, but it never plays much past the edge of the stage. That works in cases, such as the long family dinner where so many players can come face-to-face. But, a broader landscape would have worked better, especially in showing how the August heat in Oklahoma can leave the world looking like scorched earth.
What the strong cast gets to play is a story that's rich with all the bruises and blisters that families try to hide from the public. Wells could have used a little stronger direction, as there are moments when his mega-star cast seems more concerned with good talk show clips than an even-flowing story.
But, those moments aren't enough to distract from the good in this family tale.
Wells and Letts have altered the ending from the original stage production.
While it feels a little disingenuous to the rest of the movie, it doesn't take away from the production.
It is still a powerful and engaging story that shows the flaws that make families so interesting. Crazy and interesting.
"August: Osage County," rated R for language, sexual content, drug use. Stars Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Margo Martindale, Abigail Breslin, Juliette Lewis, Chris Cooper. Directed by John Wells. Running time: 130 minutes. Grade: B
TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at (559) 441-6355, firstname.lastname@example.org or @RickBentley1 on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.