News flash: Meryl Streep is awesome. Proving, once again, just how good she really is, La Streep towers over August: Osage County, playing Violet Weston, the matriarch of one of the most f-ed up families we’ve ever seen on film. Adapted from a Tony-winning play, the film version doesn’t do much to make it a cinematic journey. Instead, director John Wells just let his actors strut their stuff.
While there’s an all-star cast here, it’s pretty much all about Meryl and Julia Roberts, who plays one of Meryl’s daughters. The patriarch of the family (Sam Sheperd) has killed himself, which brings Barbara (Roberts) back home to Oklahoma to deal with the family drama, with her estranged husband (Ewan McGregor) and 14-year-old daughter (Abigail Breslin) in tow.
It’s not exactly a happy homecoming. Barbara and Violet immediately go at it each other yelling about the meanest things a person can say. The other kids, Ivy and Karen (Julianne Nicholson, Juliette Lewis), have their own different way of dealing with it. Karen, in particular, just acts like Ms. Happy-Go-Lucky like she can find the upside in any situation.
Violet’s sister (a charming Margo Martindale) is also there with her husband (Chris Cooper), and their son (Benedict Cumberbatch) shows up late…after the funeral is already over. These characters each have a nice moment, Cooper and Cumberbatch in particular have a beautiful scene at a bus station, but they are all audience members to the Violet vs. Barbara showdown, especially in the epic 15-minute dinner scene.
It’s scary how committed Meryl is to this role. This character is a despicable one. She’s coarse, vile, mean, rude, vindictive…pretty much any awful character trait you can think of, it’s part of Violet Weston. A lesser actress wouldn’t have inhabited all these characteristics so thoroughly, but Streep does. The actress has said what an emotionally draining and “un-fun” experience it was playing this character, and you can see why. Streep goes to all those dark places. With Streep’s performance, you’d think Violet would probably bleed black too. She’s like a freight train that goes right through her family any time she can, and creates trainwrecks you can’t look away from. Meryl makes no apologies for her as this is a woman has hardened herself so completely because of her “hardships” (some of which she confesses) that there is no turning back for her. When Streep is on screen, you can’t take your eyes off her.
Even Julia becomes a bystander to the juggernaut that is Streep in some scenes, but this still registers as one of the best performances of Roberts’ career. If you thought Julia swore a lot in Erin Brockovich, well, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Along with laying on the meanness, Roberts has to play some interesting notes here. It ends up that Barbara is a woman who thought by getting away from her mother physically meant she was nothing like her, but as the movie progresses, she realizes how scarily similar she is to the person she riles against. Roberts doesn’t back away from playing the darkness places, but her character hasn’t found contentness in the negativity either.
August: Osage County is an exercise of great acting, but it’s not exactly a great cinematic experience. The third act lays on the bleakness and revelations a little too thick. Plot twists just seem to be present to ensure that everyone ends up absolutely miserable. It all leads to a conclusion that leaves you with a feeling of indifference. You come away with the feeling of “oh, so I just watched a family yell at each other for 2 hours”, but with performances like this, you’ll be happy that you did.