“Don’t get all Carson McCullers on me,” snaps Barbara (Julia Roberts) to one of her over-dramatizing sisters, but that’s a stone that really shouldn’t be thrown within the glass house that is “August: Osage County,” a movie that feels like a stew of McCullers and Tennessee Williams and Beth Henley and Robert Harling and countless other writers who have assembled the unhappy members of a dysfunctional family under one roof for subsequent fireworks of recrimination and regret.
To get the most enjoyment out of “August,” it’s best to think of it less as an adaptation of a Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning play or as a screen adaptation of playwright Tracy Letts (the previous ones have been the very intense “Killer Joe” and “Bug”) and more like an all-star opportunity for bad behavior, shocking revelations and even a cat fight.
Director John Wells (the TV mogul’s previous screen directorial credit was 2010’s “The Company Men”) turns the piece’s dark, lurid humor up to 11, and it’s up to this generation’s greatest screen actress to find the honesty and the power amongst all the showboating: I’m referring, of course, to Margo Martindale, who nails her scenes as Mattie Fae.
Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts are a hoot as well, don’t get me wrong, but they tear into each other, their co-stars and the scenery with all the reticence of Godzilla and Megalon doing battle in the Tokyo suburbs.
The three Weston sisters — and at least since Chekhov, stories like this almost always seem to revolve around three sisters — return to their sprawling Oklahoma home upon the disappearance and subsequent death of the patriarch, Beverly (Sam Shepard). Dutiful Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) stayed home and bore the brunt of tending to the family’s monster mommy, the pill-popping, blunt-talking Violet (Streep).
Flighty Karen (Juliette Lewis) dashed off to Florida, where she’s been involved with a series of questionable men; Steve (Dermot Mulroney), her current fiancée, has accompanied her to the lion’s den. And then there’s Barbara, who’s got a troubled marriage to an intellectual (Ewan McGregor as Bill) and a strained relationship with her daughter (Abigail Breslin as Jean) — in other words, she’s turning out just like dear old mom.
Between the heat, the proximity and Violet’s viciously tart tongue, it doesn’t take long before the sins of the past and present (and maybe even a few future ones) come roaring up, leading to a post-funeral dinner sequence where truths are told, dishes are broken and Roberts gives fellow Oscar-winner Streep a flying tackle that the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling would admire.
“August: Osage County” is certainly never boring, but it almost always veers in the direction of diva silliness rather than of gravitas — one of Streep’s climactic scenes should probably feel like a soul punch, but it either accidentally or intentionally calls to mind the camp classics “Mommie Dearest” and “Valley of the Dolls.”
With Streep and Roberts going so broad and so big, the rest of the cast wisely underplays to varying effect. Nicholson and Chris Cooper (as Violet’s brother-in-law) both deliver intensely slow burns that lead to third-act explosions, while McGregor retreats to that bland place he almost always goes when doing an American accent.
But then there’s Martindale, as Violet’s sister — she’s the nicer sibling, yes, but she’s got a temperament and some secrets of her own. Whether she’s sharing a nasty chortle with Streep over some old family photos or grounding one of the story’s soapier twists with a gutting, heartfelt confession, she does the most to tether this tale to reality.
If you like your unhappy families a-hootin’ and a-hollerin’, “August: Osage County” is the movie for you; if these cantankerous Oklahomans leave you craving something subtler and smarter, but no less hilarious, you might go a couple of states over for Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska” instead.