It may be 30 below in Cass County this week, but on screen it's 108 degrees in "August: Osage County." And as the old story goes, when the day is hot, there's no escaping a brawl.
Based on Tracy Letts' Pulitzer Prize-winning drama (also Best Play at the Tonys), "August: Osage County" probably isn't for most boxing or MMA enthusiasts. But it'll be raw meat for theater fans or anyone who enjoys seeing a dysfunctional family strap on the gloves and go a few rounds. The Weston clan is, by design, the mother of all post-Greek tragedy dysfunctional families, and since that "mother" is Meryl Streep, hold on to your popcorn.
Streep plays Violet Weston, who reluctantly plays host to her three grown daughters (and their significant others) when their soused father Beverly (Sam Shepard) goes AWOL. The mystery of Beverly's disappearance serves as little more than a catalyst for explosive reactions amongst the characters and secrets jammed into the dim, depressing Weston house (tapping the shades, one character ruefully remarks, "You can't tell if it's night or day").
And so the three sisters -- Barbara (Julia Roberts), Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) and Karen (Juliette Lewis) -- commiserate and attempt to handle, or simply bear, their overbearing mother, whose ironic mouth cancer has her doubling down on her addictions to pills and sowing unhappiness. Why, Violet seems to reckon, should she be alone in being miserable? There's enough to go around. Underneath the vitriol, though, we're led to believe that the lyrics of Violet's favorite boogie ("Lay Down Sally") express a hidden longing for the best family has to offer.
All of the play's shock-value plot bombs, and its overdoses of self-destructiveness and destructiveness, can be a bit obvious and get a bit tedious. The playwright has adapted his own work for director John Wells ("The Company Men") but absent the electricity of live-wire live performance, the play's paucity of depth becomes more obvious. What's left to carry the day are a nasty streak of black comedy and the redoubtable acting ensemble.
Streep does her virtuoso thing, not so much disappearing into a role as playing it like the world's greatest electric-guitar solo; her performance is just what the film needs, and it's nicely complemented by Roberts' sourly reactive turn (it's one of the play's best jokes -- and threats -- that Barbara seems well on her way to becoming Violet).
Also kicking around are Ewan McGregor, the ubiquitous Benedict Cumberbatch, Margo Martindale, Chris Cooper, Dermot Mulroney and Misty Upham, all entirely effective. With material that often spikes to 11 on the volume dial, the understatement of actors like Nicholson and Cooper redefines scene stealing and swiftly endears those characters and their portrayers to the audience.
One thing's for sure. When people get a load of the dinner scene here, they'll be counting their lucky stars for the relative calm of their own family get-togethers.