One of the smartest decisions director John Wells made in adapting Tracy Letts' 2008 Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning, darkly comic drama was filming it in the dense heat of Bartlesville in Oklahoma's parched heartland of Osage County.
Venomous, tart-tongued Violet (Meryl Streep) is the paranoid, pill-popping matriarch of the highly dysfunctional Weston family. Her harsh irascibility has made her a tough combatant, now enduring chemotherapy in a battle with mouth cancer, but that same trait has also driven away those who love her. When a sudden tragedy reunites her three grown daughters in the sprawling Weston house, the women confront not only their pasts but their futures.
There's exasperated Barbara (Julia Roberts), the eldest, who comes in from Colorado with her estranged college professor husband, bland Bill (Ewan McGregor), and their precocious, pot-smoking 14-year-old daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin). Middle sister Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) has been dutifully caring for Violet and their long-suffering, alcoholic father, Beverly (Sam Shepard), but yearns to move to New York City. Flighty wild child Karen (Juliette Lewis) is the youngest, arriving with her fiance, Steve Heidebrecht (Dermot Mulroney), a sleazy Florida hustler. Also present are Violet's secretive sister, Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale), her compassionate husband Charles (Chris Cooper) and their clumsy, slow-witted son, called Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch), plus the loyal Native American housekeeper (Misty Upham).
Letts' complicated, cantankerous characters are richly drawn and psychologically believable, while his scalding dialogue is acerbic, clever and compelling. Problem is: it's stylized into monologues, making it far more effective on stage than on the big screen. A sense of emotional distance also emanates from John Wells' ("The Company Men") over-the-top direction, unintentionally evoking memories of "Mommy Dearest" and "Terms of Endearment." Nevertheless, it's an acting showcase -- with Streep, Roberts and Martindale particularly powerful -- even if the tepid, yet upbeat conclusion, which differs from the play, seems forced.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "August: Osage County" is a barbed, emotional 8, filled with challenging, revelatory outbursts of recrimination and regret. Abandonment disguised as holiday fare.