“August: Osage County” travels from the stage to the screen with much of its theatricality intact. Too much. For all the scenic prairie panoramas and lived-in look of the big, rural Oklahoma house that is the setting, it still feels like a play — with Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts and pretty much everybody else projecting to the back row.
It’s a sharp-tongued melodrama of cruelty, comical cursing, “big scenes” and shocking revelations. Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tracy Letts kept it all in there and then some in this all-star serving of Oscar bait.
Streep tosses moderation away as the salty, testy matriarch, Violet Weston, a pill-popping cancer patient who has spoken her mean-spirited mind for so long she can’t control her tongue.
“I’m just truth-telling,” she says, laughing off the pained or furious reactions of those who feel her wrath. “Damn fine day to tell the truth.”
Violet’s illness, we’re amusingly informed, is “cancer of the mouth.”
And that “damn fine day” is the day of her husband’s funeral. We’ve met the sweetly poetic drinker Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard) in the opening scenes. We’ve seen the bigoted, bullying martinet he endures, every day. When he disappears and Violet summons her sister (Margo Martindale) and daughters (Roberts, Julianne Nicholson and Juliette Lewis), we know he’s not coming back. Death was just an extreme means of escape.
Menfolk show up, too. There’s Charlie (Chris Cooper), who has always joked away Violet’s mean streak and winked through the sarcasm it brings out in his own wife, Violet’s sister, Mattie Fae (Martindale). “Little Charlie” (Benedict Cumberbatch, showing a vulnerable side) is their clumsy, put-upon son. Dermot Mulroney is Steve, the Ferrari-driving Florida hustler who Karen (Lewis) brings home.