'August: Osage County' (R)

Tracy Letts’ searing drama about an estranged family returning home during a crisis was always destined for the screen. With comparisons to Long Day’s Journey Into Night, a Pulitzer prize and enough meaty roles to land a bushel of award nominations, August: Osage County had pedigree and clout. It can barely be mentioned without the word “Oscar” trailing along in the same sentence.

Letts has adapted his play into a film, cutting it down to a manageable 130 minutes and maintaining most of its dark comedy. But the transformation is not without a few bumps. The misleading feel-good trailers would have you believe Letts’ story is an upbeat reminder of the unbreakable bonds of family. The play is something else altogether, so why Letts tacked on a semi-hopeful ending is a mystery (and an ill-conceived mystery at that). You’re not supposed to feel good about life’s possibilities after seeing August: Osage County. You’re supposed to be devastated.

That said, the cast could not be more irresistible as members of the Weston family, who gather to support matriarch Violet (Meryl Streep) in the dark dusty old house on the Oklahoma plains. They trickle back unwillingly, drawn by duty but cautious, too. They know the explosive nature of this territory.

First on the scene is Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), the daughter who has stayed close to home to keep an eye on her father (Sam Shepard) and Violet and their warring bad habits (he drinks; she takes pills by the fistful). Others show up warily: good-natured Uncle Charlie (Chris Cooper) and Aunt Mattie Rae (Margo Martindale), Violet’s sister; oldest daughter Barbara (Julia Roberts) and her husband and teenage daughter (Ewan McGregor and Abigail Breslin) from Colorado; daughter Karen (Juliette Lewis) and her flashy fiance (Dermot Mulroney) from Miami; and finally the peculiar, shy cousin Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch).

Then Letts unleashes the sly, aggressive, embittered, drugged-out Violet on them. There is vitriol to spare for almost everyone, but Violet tends to hone in on Barbara, who clearly loathes every moment she’s in the house. Watching Streep and Roberts go at each other is a great and terrible pleasure, though you wouldn’t want to re-enact their battles in your own home anytime soon. Streep is marvelous and terrifying, eyeballing every relation at her dinner table, calculating their secrets and then jabbing them with poisonous verbal darts at just the right moment; you can see her making mental notes on every hidden weakness. Roberts, grim and stripped of her trademark killer smile, is even more compelling as the angry Barbara, who by necessity has evolved into a worthy opponent for her selfish, strong-willed mother — possibly to the detriment of her own happiness.

Emmy winner Martindale and Oscar winner Cooper are also outstanding, as a long-married couple whose union grows strained in the presence of these battles (she has shared Violet’s miserable childhood and bears wounds of her own; he’s baffled that everyone can’t just be nice to each other). But there’s not a weak performance in the bunch, though the choice of Cumberbatch as Little Charles feels slightly off; he’s a bit too handsome to be believable as a frightened, socially inept oddball.

The play raised its claustrophobic tension through its setting; everything happens within that awful house, and by the final act the audience can barely breathe as the walls close in. By contrast, director John Wells (The Company Men) spreads the film’s emotion outdoors, to the yard and the roads and fields of the town, dappling the bitterness and blame with sunshine and color and thus robbing the movie of a crucial (if sickening) element. Some of his revelations play better on stage, too.

August: Osage County is easier to watch on screen, and maybe for that we should be grateful. But there’s also something to be said for sitting shell-shocked afterward, shaken and relieved to be free from witnessing more of this family’s downfall.

Cast: Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Margo Martindale, Juliette Lewis, Julianne Nicholson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Abigail Breslin, Dermot Mulroney, Sam Shepard.
Director: John Wells.
Screenwriter: Tracy Letts. Based on his play.
Producers: George Clooney, Jean Doumanian, Grant Heslov, Steve Traxler, Harvey Weinstein.
A Weinstein Co. release. Running time: 130 minutes. Language including sexual references, drug use. Playing at: area theaters.