‘August: Osage County’: Ties that strangle

December 22, 2013

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“Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” Tolstoy observed and he could have been talking about the Weston clan of “August: Osage County,” when he wrote that line to start “Anna Karenina.”

This particular family get-together is like one of those “Royal Rumble” professional wrestling matches, where a new wrestler enters the ring every few minutes until you’ve got a massive free-for-all going on. No one, it seems, is safe from attack – and this is a family reunion for a funeral.

Adapted by Tracy Letts from his Pulitzer and Tony Award-winning play, this John Wells film condenses and yet expands upon that theatrical experience, distilling three hours of stage time to two hours on the screen without losing any of the impact, stinging humor or gasp-provoking revelations.

At the center of the battle are matriarch Violet Weston (Meryl Streep), who uses her mouth cancer as an excuse for an ongoing pill addiction that leaves her alternately snarly and woozy (even as she chain-smokes). When her husband Beverly (Sam Shepard), an obviously long-suffering poet and professor, disappears one day, Violet summons her three daughters home. And when Beverly turns up dead, the floodgates open.

While Violet’s daughter Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) lives locally, daughter Barbara (Julia Roberts) has long since fled to Denver with her husband Bill (Ewan McGregor). Barbara’s sister Karen (Juliette Lewis) is in Florida, on her umpteenth beau, a sleazy business type named Steve (Dermot Mulroney), who accompanies her to the funeral.

But it’s an even bigger family than that. There’s Violet’s sister, Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale), and her husband, Charles (Chris Cooper), as well as their son, called Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch). Mattie Fae is exceptionally cruel to her son, picking at him like a chicken who sees a spot of blood on a coop mate. Bill and Barbara bring their disaffected teen-age daughter, Jean (Abigail Breslin), and there’s a maid (Misty Upham) that Beverly hired shortly before he disappeared.

Does Violet drink and drug because of the inattention of Beverly? Was Beverly a drinker because Violet was such a hateful shrew? Did the daughters flee because of their parents’ apparently constant warfare? How has that manifested itself in the adults that these daughters have turned into?

The past rises up to slap these people in the face, even as they try to cope with the present. There’s been a death in the family – and each of them has a life that is more than a little unsatisfying, as well as ideas of how to remedy that. But those potential solutions depend on assumptions which, in most cases, are built on sand – hopes ungrounded in reality.

The level of interpersonal cruelty (disguised as familial honesty) is breath-taking, building to moments of surprised laughter or astonishing sharpness. The give-and-take between Barbara and Violet – mother and daughter, as fraught a relationship as there seems to be in this tale – is particularly vicious, to the point of a physical attack that is one of the film’s high points.

Even the film’s grace notes – those moments when characters seem to be on the verge of some sort of tiny moment of happiness – come with some surprise or secret to undercut them. The rapid shifts in tone are handled with dexterity by Wells, who conducts his cast through an emotional symphony of peaks and valleys.

That cast is led by Roberts, as the daughter who is both dutiful and dour – the only one willing to call Violet on her destructive shenanigans. Roberts does a good job of showing us Barbara’s deepest fear – that she is turning into Violet – even as her stiff-backed expectations of her husband and daughter lead her to do exactly that.

Streep, meanwhile, makes Violet a crafty old harridan, playing the victim when convenient, applying the needle whenever she can get away with it. The character must work on several levels – the woman herself, the drugged-out version of who she’s become, the fearful person behind the bluster. Streep, a master, shows us all these layers without seeming to work at all.

The rest of the cast is exceptional as well, no matter how small their roles, from Cooper’s compassionate father to Martindale as the disappointed mother with secrets of her own, to Nicholson and Lewis as damaged women attempting to wrestle a little bit of happiness out of life on their own.

None of them succeed, of course. Letts’ play is as bitter and brutal – and witty and entertaining – as anything since “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.” And it receives the film it deserves with John Wells’ version of “August: Osage County.”

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