Movie Reviews

‘August: Osage County’: Overwrought, overacted | 2 stars

Updated: 2014-01-08T22:42:34Z

By JON NICCUM

Special to The Star

I’ve always preferred Meryl Streep in movies that aren’t defined by her wig and accent. When she’s simply being a person — as in “Postcards From the Edge” or “Defending Your Life” — she is so charming. Effortless.

Then there are her showboating prestige roles, such as Violet Weston in “August: Osage County,” a grating adaptation of Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play. Streep proves she can be just as hammy as any community theater novice.

There’s hardly a frame in this sour drama where you won’t catch Streep “acting.” Rolling her eyes. Gesturing wildly. Cackling. She might as well be carrying a shotgun the whole movie to fire after every sentence.

Her performance as the pill-addicted, cancer-stricken Violet causes a chain reaction, because most of the cast members try to out-act her to keep from being swallowed up. The film wastes a fine theatrical pedigree and high-powered stars in its mad dash for Oscar acclaim.

“August” begins with the disappearance of alcoholic patriarch Beverly (Sam Shepard), drawing his Oklahoma family to their secluded farmhouse. Violet’s eldest daughter and matriarch-in-the-making Barbara (Julia Roberts, convincingly bitter) arrives with her academic husband (Ewan McGregor) and disaffected 14-year-old (Abigail Breslin).

Vapid sister Karen (Juliette Lewis) pulls up in a flashy convertible with her thrice-divorced boyfriend (Dermot Mulroney). Mousy sister Ivy (Julianne Nicholson in the film’s best performance) stews in the knowledge she’s still in town taking care of her parents instead of moving on with her life.

Also stirring up the pot are Violet’s brassy sister (Margo Martindale) and plain-spoken brother-in-law (KC’s Chris Cooper), whose relationship to the family is … complicated.

Arguments arise. Secrets are revealed. Misery is hung out on the clothes line for everyone to watch dry.

These livid recriminations are occasionally amusing, especially during a lengthy dinner table scene more uncomfortable than the one in “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” It begins with a spilled casserole and ends in a catfight.

Decked in a black mannequin wig and slurring through her chain smoking, Violet is “in rare form” as her brother-in-law tells her. She is allowed to rail about all manner of topics, from infidelity (“The truth is you can’t compete with a younger woman. It’s just one of those unfair things”) to child-rearing (“If I ever called my mom a liar, she would have knocked my (expletive) head off my shoulders”).

Director John Wells (“The Company Men”) and writer Letts (who adapts his own Tony-winning play) fall into a trap that befalls many projects earmarked for Academy Award nominations: More is more. Why cast a perfect actor for a role if a more famous one is available? Take the ridiculous selection of Brit Benedict Cumberbatch for the part of Violet’s nephew, Little Charles. The actor who perfectly played the futuristic uber-human warrior Khan in “Star Trek Into Darkness” is asked to convince us he is a meek Midwestern simpleton. It rivals Alan Rickman playing Ronald Reagan in “The Butler” as dopiest casting choice of the past year.

Meanwhile, the filmmakers are content to let Streep go wherever this vicious character takes her. At first watching this harpy is slightly intriguing, then irritating and eventually depressing.

“I love drugs. Especially pills. Especially downers,” Violet bellows during one of her many tirades.

She would certainly love “August: Osage County,” a shrill downer of a movie.

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